Welcome to Chai Brow, Moment’s weekly arts column exploring contemporary film, TV and podcasts from a Jewish lens.
Documentary filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield has spent her career immersed in the world of the status-obsessed. Her breakthrough 2012 film, The Queen of Versailles, profiled Jewish timeshare mogul David Siegel and his family as they lost their fortune during the 2008 financial crisis. Greenfield’s 2018 follow-up, Generation Wealth, was the culmination of years of photographing extreme wealth chasers, including hedge-fund managers and porn stars.
Greenfield’s new film, The Kingmaker, which opens in New York and Los Angeles November 8 before rolling out to theaters across the country, maintains a fascination with the ultra-wealthy. Her subject is Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines, whose decades-long pursuit of power has had deep and painful political ramifications for her country. The filmmaker followed Marcos, now 90, as she orchestrated her son Bongbong’s 2015 campaign for vice president while supporting the successful presidential election of strongman Rodrigo Duterte.
I interviewed Greenfield at the Chicago International Film Festival, where she was appearing alongside The Kingmaker. We spoke about how her Judaism has informed her work, how the saga of the Philippines reminded her of lessons from the Holocaust, and how she came to speak at a very strange Yom Kippur service.
This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
What’s your relationship to Judaism, and how has it informed your work in photography and documentary film?
I grew up as a Reform Jew, so I don’t have a very religious background, although my father grew up quite religious and speaks Hebrew. In a way, the insider-outsider perspective that started in my photography and maybe continued in my films is a little bit of a Jewish perspective—that conflict between assimilation and feeling like the outsider is a helpful perspective, or just a natural perspective, in the kind of photography that I do, which is sociological and critical, but also critical from the inside. I’ve often had access to “inside worlds,” whether it’s media or wealth or celebrity, where I’ve then taken a critical perspective.
Your films, particularly The Queen of Versailles and The Kingmaker, have similar characters at their centers. Did you encounter these character types growing up?
No, not at all. In Generation Wealth, I track back to my own story, where I went to a very fancy high school and, being solidly middle class, had everything I needed but didn’t feel like I had enough. Generation Wealth comes from looking at that, knowing it doesn’t make sense, and yet also seeing how that kind of keeping-up-with-the-Kardashians ethos drives so much of our world today and is really essential to the mechanism of capitalism.
I think for The Kingmaker, the Jewish influence is entirely different. The moral of the story is really quoting George Santayana, “If you don’t remember the past, you’re condemned to repeat it.” As Jews, that’s kind of drummed into us in regard to the Holocaust, that if you don’t remember it, it will come back. Even in Judaism, whether you’re religious or not, there’s the sense that it’s important to know your history, your identity.
That’s really the moral of the story, that there’s an attempt by the Marcoses, the former dictators, to erase history, to rewrite history. The last words of Imelda are, “The past is the past, and maybe it doesn’t even exist anymore.” They’ve actively tried to rewrite the past, and very successfully so, as we see borne out in the elections.
I was thinking of those scenes where you visit classrooms and the kids say, “Martial law under the Marcoses was pretty great for our country.” By that point in the filming, did that surprise you?
The classroom did surprise me. Because it was such a stark rejection of the facts that are historically accepted about martial law. And yet the kids just dutifully were repeating what they had heard. They didn’t do a good job in their education of teaching people about the Marcos era and martial law. I think there was a sense of forgiveness, of moving on. So it wasn’t taught. And what was interesting was in Bongbong’s campaign for vice president, they actively went after the young electorate, the electorate that did not remember 1986 and before, the dictatorship. And they also were very successful in a social media campaign that had a different narrative.
At what point in this process did you realize how prescient this was?
It took a while because I was covering the campaign and Bongbong, but in the beginning, he didn’t really have much of a chance. So I didn’t know if that would pay off as a story. I think once he started getting momentum, once he became the frontrunner, and it was also clear how Imelda was a kingmaker, how involved she was in the campaign, how important the money they had taken from the Philippines was, the success of their current political fortunes, that’s when I realized it was really a different story about present-day power and the link between money and power.
When Duterte was elected, though, that was when I really realized what the story meant and how it also reflected both the U.S. experience, the rise in nationalism, and the return to authoritarian regimes that we see happening all over the world.
Between Imelda and the Siegels and the characters in Generation Wealth, what are the lessons you take from studying people like this in any country?
In a way, I did expect Imelda to be a more empathic character than she ended up being. At the beginning of the film I explore her backstory as an orphan, someone who came from humble beginnings and become a beauty queen, using that to leverage into a position with more power and wealth with Ferdinand Marcos, who becomes the president.
But I think in this film it’s a little bit different. I realized that she wasn’t a reliable narrator, that her version of the history of the Philippines and her own history did not square with historical accounts, with eyewitnesses. And so I felt a responsibility to bring in truth-tellers, who often were telling horrific stories about the consequences of the Marcos regime. So by the end, I think we lose our feeling of empathy for her, which is kind of the opposite of The Queen of Versailles, where we begin thinking we’re not going to like these people and we end thinking they’re like us. I think by the end of The Kingmaker, we associate Imelda Marcos more with leaders of other authoritarian regimes and even with Donald Trump, but we’re not identifying with her. I think we’re identifying with the victims.
I heard that you once spoke at a Yom Kippur service?
The rabbi from our temple went to see Generation Wealth and asked me to show the photographs and excerpts of the film and talk about them at Yom Kippur. I was kind of afraid and perplexed by it because there’s a lot of really tough content, including nudity and sexuality and things you don’t associate with a presentation in temple. And there’s even a prostitute who talks about very explicit realities from her business. But it was so interesting because I talked to the rabbi at length beforehand, and he talked about how Yom Kippur is an opportunity to get outside your normal life and reflect on it and wake up in some way.
And that actually influenced the making of the film, because the third act of the film is really all the characters waking up in some way—often from a crash, either the financial crash or a personal crash. That makes them see what I call the Matrix in a different way and deconstruct their world in a way that can lead to enlightenment or a change of agency. And this was very much influenced by our discussions.
In The Kingmaker, I think it’s on the part of the audience to wake up. In the third act, the audience realizes what the story is, what it says about the return of authoritarian regimes, the importance of history, the fragility of democracy. We can get a little bit of a bird’s-eye view on the story in the third act and see also how it applies to us in the United States and the rise of nationalism around the world.