Jeb Bush raised $162 million during the 2016 Republican primary, nearly $100 million more than Donald Trump, the radioactive pumpkin to whom he lost. Hedge-fund manager Julian Robertson, who gave the former Florida governor $1 million this election season, reportedly has no regrets, calling his contribution a “noble undertaking” in Meet the Donors: Does Money Talk?, a 66-minute HBO documentary from Alexandra Pelosi (former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s daughter). Nearly every one of the billionaires, millionaires, and the working rich — all white men, with one exception — who discuss their reasons for giving express similar motivations: that it’s patriotic, that they want to make a difference, that they want the best candidate in the White House. Only one, a cardiologist, cops to paying $20,000 or $30,000 a year to the Democrats for anything other than altruism. Displaying pictures of himself with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in one’s office, it turns out, is a great way to “project power.”
Such moments of openness are rare in this brief overview of the oligarchical system that Citizens United enabled. (Meet the Donors debuted on Monday, August 1.) For the most part, Pelosi doesn’t get the truth — or what feels like the truth — from the donors she interviews. They get access, they admit, and returned calls — but no real influence. Amid the bland answers about putting country first and self-interest a distant second are glimpses of the sense of entitlement it must take to become ultra-wealthy. Broadcasting tycoon Stanley Hubbard, who describes climate change as both a hoax and “the best thing that could happen,” calls the millions injected into politics “peanuts.” Investment banker Brad Freeman expresses disappointment that he got stuck with George W. Bush’s cat, which couldn’t be moved into the White House because it wasn’t declawed, while his fellow donors received ambassadorships and Cabinet positions. Gas and oil man T. Boone Pickens exclaims that his contributions to the GOP’s coffers didn’t lead to Congress voting his way on natural gas — just the opposite, in fact, perhaps because he was outspent by the Koch brothers, who make part of their billions from the rivaling fossil-fuel industry. All the donors who mention the Kochs agree: They’re the ones making campaign contributions for selfish reasons.
Any skeptical viewer will find the interviewees difficult to take at their word, which makes a significant chunk of the documentary not unlike a political ad — we can’t really trust anything they say. The donors’ perspectives are biased and their facts self-selected — and Pelosi rarely pushes her interviewees, perhaps in fear of losing her own access. Save for those few times when a donor lets his prejudices show — like when the Rick Santorum–supporting investor Foster Friess claims he doesn’t want to pay for one man’s 30 babies born to 24 different mothers (oof) — Meet the Donors mostly captures disingenuousness in action.
Its brisk pace is appreciated, but Meet the Donors is also startlingly superficial. For a film that arguably wouldn’t exist without Citizens United, it largely glosses over the momentous changes that ruling made happen, especially with regard to Super PACs. Pelosi’s voice-over never mentions the state and local races that are most influenced by money in politics. There are no comparisons to how other countries manage to have elections without hundreds of millions poured into the political parties — a strange omission considering how foreign nations’ systems might provide avenues toward reform. Pelosi exudes idealism and stays in the fuzzily abstract, decrying inequality and a loss of faith in the electoral system, without providing examples of how money in politics has harmed America. Those used to polished documentaries from the feature world may also be disappointed by the lack of gorgeous cinematography and/or charming animation in Meet the Donors. Pelosi’s ninth film for HBO in 12 years, it’s workmanlike at best.
The documentary shifts toward corporate lobbying after the first half and concludes with attempts at reform. Dispiritingly, Pelosi looks to those same millionaires and billionaires for hope, as if the same group of men who broke the system might then fix it, too. There’s a way, but I’m not sure there’s a will.