This month commenced with the most stellar edition yet of what's become America's favorite political pasttime, a game we call Out with the (Sorta) Old, In with the (Kinda) New. Payback was especially directed at the current administration's failure to get the economy back to booming. Yet as one of the year's biggest documentaries, Charles Ferguson's Inside Job, noted, conservative politicos and their allies were very much in on the policies that got our collective piggy bank broken and looted in the first place.
Though it can certainly stand on its own merits, Client 9 (which opens at local theaters this Friday) works wonderfully as an extensive footnote to Inside Job. Ferguson's film repeatedly asks "Why wasn't anyone minding the store?" when deregulation, loopholes and plain criminal activities on Wall Street and elsewhere were merrily building up toward a crash of tsunami strength. The latest documentary from Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Casino Jack and the United States of Money) provides one answer. There was somebody minding the store—in fact, somebody auditing the cooked books and clamoring for change.
But as this film's subtitle The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer indicates, that person went down in flames—his personal, quite possibly orchestrated disgrace getting him yanked out of the picture so Wall Street could continue on its heedless path right up to the arrival of inevitable catastrophe. At which point all concerned gibbered "Oh my gosh...who saw THAT coming?!?" And Eliot Spitzer got the joyless recompense of saying "I told you so" in every news outlet that a few months earlier had been trumpeting far and wide the news of his downfall.
Son of a Bronx real estate tycoon, Spitzer—very much a teller of his own story here, warts 'n' all—was an Ivy League grad, a high-profile lawyer, New York's Attorney General, and, as of 2007, the state's Governor. By the time he'd won that last post, he already had a reputation as the nation's fiercest opponent of corporate abuses amongst elected officials. As Governor, he dug into that task with a zeal that many considered inappropriate for his job; he replied that since no one else (including the federal bodies tasked with just such oversight) was doing it, why not him?
Needless to say, this earned him the intense ire of several enormous powers that be, some of whom Gibney finds gloating over this "Sheriff of Wall Street's" subsequent downfall. (In this context, those men come off in interviews as positively Machiavellian, if not Mephistopholean.) They loathed Spitzer's unwillingness to compromise—something that ticked off even many sympathetic to his causes—and took a very dim view of his attempt to reform the wildly out-of-control banking, investment and other corporate sectors.
How to get rid of such a pesky whistle-blower? Well...suffice it to say that just when Spitzer was threatening to instigate a serious rehaul of how major financial institutions operate—and when, in retrospect, we most desperately needed that to forestall disaster—it suddenly emerged that he had been a Bad Boy. He had become addicted to the kind of high-end Manhattan prostitution that had particularly flourished since the dot com boom—one last word in indulgent excess for men who have "everything." There was no question of misused public funds; he paid out of his own deep pockets. But the scandal effectively 86'd his image as a family man (though his marriage survived), and forced his resignation from office.
Now a 51-year-old cable commentator, among other things, Spitzer acknowledges all guilt for his actions, as well as his being variably obstinate, egotistical, combative and just plain hard to work with at times. But it's the evidence of conspiracy against him that is the Client 9 trump card—why, when the top-shelf bordello he utilized was undergoing criminal investigation, was he virtually the only customer (amongst presumably many high rollers with political clout) to warrant investigative attention? And why were this case's flames fanned to the point where he had to resign or face impeachment, when simultaneously several other leading politicians in D.C. and around the country also experienced embarrassing sexual scandals without any call for resignation?
These and other questions aren't answered 100 percent by Client 9—if only because those who likely plotted against him obviously won't confess as much—but it's pretty dang close. But it's clear Spitzer was a huge inconvenience to many entrenched power-mongers, and his removal gave them great personal satisfaction as well as a lowered threat of regulatory invasion. Even since it all went to hell, calls for drastically stepped-up regulation in the financial sectors have amounted to little real action. If he were still in office, would that be the case?
If Gibney's film were a book, you'd say it's the kind of nonfiction that reads like a page-turner novel. The characters are unbeatable, from a chastened but still fiercely articulate Spitzer himself to various Masters of the Universe whose sense of entitlement (to put one word on a whole complex of class, greed, lawlessness and other issues) is breathtaking.
Then there is the Manhattan madam so altered—by dye, collagen, implants, who knows what—to approximate a blonde blow-up doll ideal that there's no guessing what she once looked like as a real person. She is, in her way, a perfect metaphor for our burst economic bubble: Something superficially appealing but entirely unnatural that is bound to look like a burnt shell of itself once no more injections of artificial matter can be tolerated by the core organism.