Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Film Review: Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Last night, I watched Client 9 via netflix in my home from 10pm to 12am. It is a documentary on Spitzer's rise to power, who he went after when he was Attorney General, his brief stint as governor, and the prostitution-finance network in Manhattan.  I strongly recommend on account of its insight into the lives of prostitutes and the culture of entitlement on Wall Street.

The narrative of Spitzer's rise and fall is that of a self-righteous golden boy who was doing well taking on medium fish and then fell on his sword taking on bigger fish. He was taking on, quite successfully, men worth 20 million or 30 million or so throughout the 1990s and doing ok. However, he made two powerful enemies. First, Kenneth G. Langone, the billionaire financier and a founder of home depot. Spitzer attacked Langone for being on a board that payed Richard Grasso 140 million dollars to be in charge of the "not-for-profit" New York Stock Exchange, apparently there are "suggestions" in the law on how people should be paid at not-for-profits. A court later dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that the NYSE stopped being a not-for-profit sometime after the payment was made.

The second enemy was Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, then a CEO of AIG and considered one of the most powerful men in corporate America. Spitzer was stating that he was going to go after Greenberg, and this offended people on Wall Street. We had the spectacle of one Goldman Sachs executive writing an op-ed stating that Spitzer had gone "too far", sullying a "good name". From this point forward, Spitzer had two enemies who were not just millionaires but billionaires, i.e. were 4-star generals and admirals of the US ruling class rather than mere field sergeants. Private investigators were hired, telephone threats were made to Spitzer's father, information was sent to the FBI, and the end was inevitable.

Interesting in the film is how the sense of entitlement, the feeling of empowerement that arises from the culture of white male privilege on Wall Street, just oozes out of the various characters involved. There's a lot of hatred of Spitzer for having the audacity to do his job as Attorney-General. Langone, for example, said that what he resents about Spitzer is that he has caused him to give up on the forgiveness tenet of his faith. Forgiveness is a major part of his faith, but he can't forgive Spitzer, so he holds Spitzer responsible for any increased separation between him and his faith. Langone also argues, incredibly, that Spitzer is responsible for the collapse of insurance giant AIG. He says that it is because Spitzer caused the removal of competent CEO Greenberg that AIG collapsed. The notion of responsibility, of the possibility of failure, is non-existent among these peoples.

Spitzer is an interesting fellow in the movie. He is portrayed as extremely intelligent, he went to Harvard Law school, where he met his wife I think. He saw both the AG's office and Albany as being some sort of competition, and he would aim to engage in debates with his adversaries as a means of achieving progress. He's also seen as a self-righteous asshole. It's basically stated that he would go after people and state or shout "I am going to destroy you" on a regular basis. This is not all that surprising, as nobody is going to achieve that kind of political success without extremely high levels of testosterone. Unfortunately, it's that same high testosterone that caused him to go after prostitutes.

The role of prostitution is interesting. It's stated that professional athletes, financiers, movie stars, European royals, et cetera regularly see prostitutes in NY. They show us how selection is done, and picking a girl is done a la carte, kind of like ordering food off a restaurant menu. A few prostitutes are discussed in depth, one was Spitzer's most frequent hire. They had an interview with her transcribed and played by a hired actress. She said the first time she met Spitzer he didn't like him, because he wanted to get down to business right away -- typically the prostitutes get a night out first, a full simulated date. In the future she relished meeting him, and she would milk him for all she could, forcing them to have their long dinners together so she could enjoy the conversations with him where she would bask in his intelligence, "he was so smart" - quote. She said she'd give him her rants on what's wrong with New York. She would pretend not to know who he is, but she thinks he knew that she knew. On the subject of dating in general, she said she had stopped dating because her career as a prostitute where she meets great men has raised her standards to the point where dating is no longer viable for her. She also referred to as a load of shit the notion that prostitutes come from impovershed backgrounds, pointing out that a lot of them are quite wealthy, quite educated, etc. It's a ~$200-1000/hour job ... When the media story broke out, she said media tried to get in touch with her about Spitzer (even though her conversations with the FBI were supposed to be confidential), and so she fled the state.

This may be obvious but it's worth reiterating. It is not standard for FBI cases to go after prostitution rings at all, and even when they do, it's not standard to go after the Johns. The DC Madam case is shown as the standard, where only the Madam was targetted. The movie basically says that this entire ordeal was a hack job with powerful backers, including appointees of the Bush white house at the federal justice department.

This interesting woman is not to be confused with Ashlee Dupree, known as "Spitzer's girl" and the one who was all over the media. She apparently only had sex with Spitzer once, and the media portrayal was basically just to embarass Spitzer. The documentary states that her media profile went up whenever Spitzer would start getting more media attention, trying to resuscitate his career. In that sense, while it would not be just to call Dupree a whore for her legitimate job as a sex worker in my opinion, the same is harder to say for how she sold her soul to political opportunists like Fox News. She later posed for playboy and got her own column in that Rupert Murdoch rag, the New York Daily News or whatever, where she was a dating advice columnist.

Overall, the movie brings to mind a quote I read on naked capitalism blog a while back. The US ruling classes have spent the last several decades making sure nobody like Roosevelt could rise through the system, and now that they need such a man there's nobody available. It may be possible to order a woman a la carte from the website of an escort service, but that cannot be done with politicians. The same attributes that made Spitzer a steamroller, that made him fight hard and intelligently, that made him charismatic, are also the qualities that made him a competitive asshole and made him go for sex with prostitutes. It's a package deal.

Also, I'm pretty sure that the portrayal of Gotham City's "white knight" Harvey Dent / Two-Face in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight was at least "motivated" by Eliot Spitzer.