2019 AFI FEST: There’s a certain ugliness to wealth. Whether it’s the ostentatious gold-plated halls of Trump Tower or the dollars spent through the college admission scandal, opulence feels tone-deaf in today’s society. This makes the lavish possessions and endless shoe collection of Imelda Marcos garish and even a little silly. Photographer-turned-documentarian Lauren Greenfield’s latest film, “The Kingmaker,” turns our attention to another form of excess in Marcos’ life. The film begins as a quirky profile of the famous first lady of the Philippines who resembles Jackie Kennedy by way of Lucille Bluth. However, it peels back her eccentricities to expose the heinous actions of the family during their decades long dictatorship.
“The Kingmaker” introduces us to Imelda Marcos as a benevolent former-first-lady, handing money out to poor kids in the Philippines. Immediately after, Marcos whisks us away to her lavish fortress and tells stories of her time in power. In one scene, we follow her out onto a patio filled with tables holding up crowds of framed photographs. Marcos walks us through the less-than-savory dignitaries she entertained, ranging from Nixon to Mao to Saddam Hussein. After knocking over a frame, one of her workers cleans up her mess while Marcos continues her story, not missing a beat. To her, there’s no right and wrong. There’s just those in power, and those ruled by powerful people.
It’s not just that Marcos and her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, were in proximity to terrible, powerful people. Under the Marcos dictatorship, thousands were imprisoned, tortured and killed. The Marcos family built their incomparable fortune through diverting funds from the country and common people. Even after leaving office and being driven from the country, Imelda and Ferdinand’s son was able to be a major candidate for President of the Philippines. They were also huge donors to the current President, Rodrigo Duterte. Even though she doesn’t sit on a throne, “The Kingmaker” posits Marcos wields just as much power today.
Photographer Lauren Greenfield has spent much of her film career attacking our world’s obsession with wealth. “Queen of Versailles” expertly profiles how one couple’s quest for opulence derails their family amidst the financial crisis. Last year’s “Generation Wealth” expands the subject of wealth to a global scale, though it often relies on making Greenfield the subject of her own critique. Greenfield returns to the focused profile with “The Kingmaker,” but has plenty of entry points to choose from. She also makes sure to exploit all of them. We see all sides of Imelda Marcos — the kooky rich lady, the Lady MacBeth political figure, the rags to riches beauty queen, the dictator’s wife and the brains behind the dictator. After a first half of fun shoe montages, the documentary really gets going as it exposes the full breadth of the Marcos family’s corruption.
Greenberg weaves a tricky narrative web throughout. We find Marcos quixotic, admirably powerful and even patriotic at points before Greenberg rips the curtain to expose her atrocities. As satisfying as the reveals are, Greenberg never fully drops her love of Imelda’s shoes. After interviews of torture victims, grim footage of squalor and a segment on the Marcos’ exile, Greenberg remains fascinated with Marcos’ wealth. There’s a through line for sure. Marcos robbed the Filipino people for her own gain. The supposed generosity of her handing out money to children at the film’s opening feels like a cold slap in the face. Yet, the movie weaves between so many perceptions of the same woman, it’s easy to feel whiplash.
Even with repeated beats, “The Kingmaker” still begs to be watched. What it lacks in focus it makes up in personality. It looks to zing and underscore all of Marcos’ actions, as well as our perception of her. As fascinating a character as Imelda is, the movie only fully attacks the idea of nepotism at its most egregious and deadly at the end. Let’s stop looking at the shoes and look up. There’s an empire created by the Marcos family that still persists today. This feels like the more pervasive and immediate point.