Nov. 7 (Bloomberg) -- The billionaires living at 740 Park Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side are, as a former doorman puts it in Alex Gibney’s new documentary, a “high-tempered” bunch.
And that’s the start and finish of any understatement in the trenchant, dishy broadside “Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream.”
A big, hulking metaphor for income inequality, 740 Park (not to be confused with ABC’s series, “666 Park Avenue”) houses the greatest concentration of billionaires in the country. A 10-minute limo ride away, sections of the South Bronx have unemployment levels of 19 percent and a local food pantry runs out of supplies 15 minutes after its doors open.
Once home to John D. Rockefeller Jr. and a young Jacqueline Bouvier, the 31-unit building now shelters, among others, Koch Industries cofounder David Koch; the final Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain; Blackstone Group CEO Stephen A. Schwarzman; and hedge fund manager J. Ezra Merkin.
With the savvy indignation he brought to “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” Gibney lambastes the power brokers he says have “rigged the game” with unfair tax policies, political influence and unchecked greed.
Loosely based on author Michael Gross’s “740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building,” Gibney’s hour-long film traces current disparity to the consumer protection crusades of the 1970s -- or, more specifically, to corporate America’s take-no-prisoners response to those crusades.
With co-writers Chad Beck and Adam Bolt, Gibney leaps from CEO salaries, Wall Street bonuses and carried-interest loopholes to oil company profits and corporate lobbyists with free rein on the political circuit.
“Money is being used to buy results,” says Jack Abramoff, who knows a thing or two about the subject (and is the focus of another Gibney film, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money”). “That’s how I used money, and I knew what I was doing.”
But the film’s ace is 740 Park itself, an imposing limestone fortress built in 1929.
Gibney says the building is now dominated by the “hedge fund guys” who have widened the gap between rich and richest.
None of the billionaires agreed to appear in the film, freeing Gibney of any equal-time diplomacy. His disdain goes as unchecked as Thain’s $1.2 million office renovations at the failing Merrill Lynch.
“The cheapest person overall was David Koch,” the former doorman tells Gibney, his voice altered and his face in shadow. “We would load up his trucks -- two vans usually -- every weekend for the Hamptons.
“In and out, in and out, heavy bags. We would never get a tip from Mr. Koch. We would never get a smile from Mr. Koch.”
Koch did, however, hand out Christmas bonuses. Each doorman got a check for $50.
“Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream” airs Monday, Nov. 12 on PBS’s “Independent Lens” at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***1/2
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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