LET THEM EAT CAKE
‘The Kingmaker’: A Scathing Portrait of the Female Donald Trump
The latest from the foremost chronicler of the wealthy, Lauren Greenfield (“Queen of Versailles”), is this jaw-dropping doc on Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines.
A disheartening reminder that in-your-face criminal activity perpetrated by democratically elected presidents isn’t merely the province of Donald Trump, The Kingmaker details the attempts of Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, to get her son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. elected vice president. It’s a mission complicated, of course, by the fact that Imelda and her husband, the late president Ferdinand, were as crooked and ruthless as they come, having bilked their country out of billions for their own personal lavish-lifestyle gain from 1965 to 1986, and also persecuted opponents (under the guise of anti-communist crackdowns) through the institution of martial law. As Lauren Greenfield’s sharply critical and deeply distressing documentary elucidates, the past is never truly past, especially when the sins of the father are allowed to go unpunished.
Greenfield’s film (in theaters Nov. 8, following its Nov. 6 screening at the DOC NYC festival) is bolstered by considerable access to Imelda, who at 90 years old, remains as extravagant and entitled as ever, posing for the camera in a regal gown amidst the many opulent works of art that decorate her apartment. The Picassos and Michelangelos on her walls—which, we later learn, she’s deliberately hid from investigators—are clear indications that, despite efforts to reclaim the vast sums of money she and her husband stole from public coffers, Imelda continues to profit from her misdeeds. She also remains repulsively haughty, handing out cash to the poor in a show of kindness that comes off as from-on-high condescension, and casually ignoring an employee who’s cleaning up the broken-glass mess she’s made by knocking over a picture during an on-camera interview.
The Kingmaker shrewdly uses such offhand moments to expose Imelda’s sense of superiority, and then juxtaposes them with her remembrances of her glorious first lady tenure to illustrate the lies—and self-deception—governing her conduct. Greenfield, whose prior films The Queen of Versailles and Generation Wealth also investigated the twisted psychology of the super-wealthy, proves a natural fit for probing Imelda’s rancid mind, which maintains the belief that her husband’s reign was a period of glory for the nation, and that the 2010-2016 democratic administration of Benigno “Noy” Aquino III “has no soul, has no heart.” Since it’s widely assumed that Imelda’s husband Ferdinand had Noy’s opposition-leader father Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. assassinated in 1983 (this after years of unjust incarceration), that sentiment comes across as shocking in its callous hypocrisy. But then, that’s Imelda for you, who also talks about how much she did for Ninoy (“God knows, I was very kind to him”), and that, “The dream for my country is to regain paradise for all.”
As The Kingmaker reveals, that utopia involves not only letting Imelda and her family attain the sort of fortune necessary to buy thousands of pairs of shoes (as she famously owned in her heyday), but installing her son Bongbong in office. Not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of once again letting the Marcoses run things, considering that they’ve yet to return that which they pilfered in the first place (and in fact keep proclaiming their innocence). Nonetheless, as history incessantly illustrates, the desire for strongman leaders is a powerful one, especially when post-dictatorial governments don’t provide immediate stability for all, and Bongbong is soon rising up the polls—this despite the fact that, in an inspiring moment during a televised debate, he’s lustily booed for responding to restitution demands with, “I cannot give what I do not have.”
Imelda’s commentary is complemented by archival footage of her glamorous jet-setting first lady years, including meetings with Nixon, Reagan, Gaddafi and Mao (who, she says, praised her for initiating the end of the Cold War). It’s also contrasted with images of hardship under Ferdinand’s eight-year martial law, and accounts of torture and persecution by some of his many victims. In those passages, The Kingmaker lays bare the profiteering murderousness of the power-hungry Marcos clan, and the way they use deceit and denial to continue thriving in the very place they perpetrated their monumental wrongs. Moreover, as we see on Bongbong’s campaign trail, they also employ bribery to advance their cause, using their ill-gotten gains to once more install themselves at the forefront of government.
The Kingmaker’s portrait of grift and vice—and the disingenuous justifications for its use—is stomach-churning, and so too is its depiction of nepotism as a form of despotic control. In one of numerous discerning moments, Greenfield equates Imelda’s bid to make Bongbong vice president with the wild African animals she purchased in the 1970s and left on Calauit Island, where, left to their own devices, they began to breed incestuously. The Philippines, it’s apparent, is a corrupted closed-system, and that’s hammered home by the film’s account of the 2016 election, in which Bongbong loses to rival Leni Robredo and then contests the results, all with the support of newly-elected President Rodrigo Duterte—a tyrant who admits that he was funded by Imelda’s daughter, Imee, who in turn won a Senate seat, and whose son wound up securing his mom’s former governorship.
The entire enterprise is rigged, but to Imelda, she’s just being a “mother” to her country—nonsense she touts with a compassion that’s as transparent as her taste is gaudy. The Kingmaker doesn’t get Imelda to directly address the source of her material riches. However, listening to her woe-is-me anecdote about having to stuff her diamonds in a diaper box when fleeing the Philippines in 1986, there’s no doubt that she views herself as an unjustly-vilified victim. To her, all of her shoes and paintings and houses (including one that she hid from authorities by placing it in the name of actor George Hamilton, who turned around and sold it for his own benefit!) were merely a way to make herself a grand, glorious beacon of hope and prosperity for her people.
That sentiment is, without question, self-serving. And yet the tragedy laid out by The Kingmaker is that so many are swayed by the idea of the benevolent rich and powerful and their promises of restoring order and economic prosperity—even when their motives are so manifestly greedy. “Perception is real, and the truth is not,” remarks Imelda, and no words were ever more authoritarian or, unfortunately, true.