Donald Trump is no stranger to the spotlight, and it’s no secret he, and his organization, like to try to control the way it shines on him. Yet even as far back as 1991, while most of us were rocking out to Nirvana and contemplating the deeper meaning of Heathers, concerned journalists and filmmakers rallied together to sculpt a documentary exposing the even-then-infamous celebrity billionaire’s shadowy side.
Produced by Leonard Stern, a businessman-cum-wannabe-media magnate who had purchased the Village Voice and was looking to make the leap to television, Trump: What’s The Deal was making waves almost immediately, before it was even released.
“This was supposed to be the first in a series on celebrity businessmen that would be syndicated,” explains producer Libby Handros. “and it was told to us by people that they had received phone calls, and they knew that if they put this on they’d have to answer lawyer letters.”
Yes, Trump wasn’t, as you can imagine, thrilled at the thought of his dirty laundry being aired for all to see, reacting much the same way then as he does today—with bluster and threats of legal action. And these were techniques that carried more weight two decades ago, successfully burying the documentary by cutting off any outlet for it to be seen.
“He did everything he could to suppress this documentary,” Handros continued. “And back in the day when we made the film, there were only a handful of networks. You had a few independent entities, but everything was controlled by big corporations, the three networks. And Donald was threatening lawsuits and stuff and they just didn’t need to take that on, even if the lawsuit would have no merit in the end.”
The tycoon’s tantrum was also, apparently, too much for Stern to bear as well.
“Donald threatened him, or Donald had something on him, who knows?” Handros mused. “He would say it was just because all of the syndicators pulled out, so it was no longer a good business investment. So therefore he pulled out.”
Now, 25 years later, and with Stern’s passing, Handros has acquired all the rights to the film, which she had been keeping safe. And she feels, very strongly, that as Trump gains momentum in his presidential bid that What’s The Deal is more important now than ever.
“It’s time for people to see it,” she stated flatly. “It’s important for people to see it.”
Stylistically, the documentary is as much exposé as it is a nostalgia-inducing time capsule into another era. Big hair and an '80s soundtrack make it all the more watchable.
“Even though the film is done in a tabloid style, everything in it presents a fairly damning portrait of the man who wants to be president,” Handors notes. “And the man who wants to be president, who is running to protect and defend the Constitution, is busy leveling free speech. Has he ever read the First Amendment? He did everything he could to suppress this documentary.”
What’s The Deal’s allegations read like today’s headlines, from mob connections to fabricating finances to media manipulation to abusive behavior toward women and even allegations of “psychological attacks and blackmail to move tenants out of a building he wanted demolished” and a failed bid at “buying” Mike Tyson.
The film struck so close to home for the arrogant billionaire that, at a party some time after successfully squashing its release, he even got in a shoving match with the 65-year-old Al Levin, the mild-mannered producer who worked on it.
Handros is releasing the film for free—you can watch it in its entirety below—and says she isn’t afraid of the human hairpiece’s litigious nature herself.
“Bring it on,” she challenged boldly, laughing.