(Bloomberg) -- To an international audience with a long memory, Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, is famous for the thousands of shoes that were seized when her husband Ferdinand was ousted from power. In global pop culture, her name became synonymous with excess and greed.
To people in the Philippines however, she’s the omnipresent matriarch of a family that began to try to claw back political power almost as soon as they lost it.
Marcos plays a starring role in those machinations in a new documentary, The Kingmaker, by Lauren Greenfield, which loosely follows Marcos and her son, former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, as he campaigns to become vice president of the Philippines in 2016. (Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, provided financial support for the film.)
The documentary is something of a bait and switch— it starts out as a sort of “lives of the rich and famous”-style drama and slowly becomes a tutorial in what Greenfield strongly suggests is a multi decade campaign of unseemly and allegedly illegal activity carried out by the Marcos clan in an effort to regain political sovereignty.
From one angle, this is new ground for Greenfield, who’s devoted her career to chronicling Western excess. She’s documented rich Los Angeles teens and aging French aristocrats, and produced a mountain of books, exhibitions, and documentaries about various members of the upper class.
Greenfield is certainly not in awe of money—most of her work is heavily slanted toward the evils of consumer culture— but cold hard cash has always been at the root of her work.
The Marcos family, in contrast, is certainly preoccupied with money, but primarily—at least in Kingmaker—as a means of perpetuating its own influence and power. Greenfield might follow Marcos around her Manila apartment as she points out her Picassos, Fragonards, and, almost unbelievably, a Michelangelo, and the camera is happy to linger on Marcos’s jewels and dresses. But when money is actually spent on camera, it’s on activity likely to gain votes.
The Marcos family is deeply embedded in the country's political firmament. Marcos’s daughter is a senator, and her grandson is a governor. Marcos herself is a four-term congresswoman. And so we watch Marcos driving through slums with stacks of crisp bills, handing them out wherever she goes. At stoplights, she’ll hand out bills; at church, she’ll slip cash to the priest; even in a cancer ward, her default is to push money into the hands of a bedridden child. But even though that money is a tool, it’s also, Kingmaker argues, at the core of the Marcos family’s political enterprise.
The Marcos family’s hidden wealth, of which about $4 billion has been recovered by successive Philippine governments, isn’t exactly a fringe concern. After a CNN debate between Bongbong and Robredo, someone at a press conference press asks Marcos, point blank, about his “hidden wealth— do you have it?”
For someone who’s presumably had a lifetime to figure out a compelling answer, Bongbong doesn’t do a great job at giving an explanation. “No, no. I don’t have it,” he says. “Everything of mine is very clear and uh …” trailing off until he’s asked another question.
His mother is a much better politician. She’s better at working a crowd, better at arguing for her children’s political relevance, and infinitely better at justifying her own excesses.
“When I became first lady, it became it became more demanding for me,” she explains. “If I’m going to the slum areas, I have to dress up and make myself more beautiful. Because the poor always look for a star in the dark of the night.”
Perhaps unconsciously, Marcos is echoing another clotheshorse, the late New York socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor. In her 2007 obituary, Astor is quoted as saying: “If I go up to Harlem or down to Sixth Street, and I’m not dressed up or I’m not wearing my jewelry, then the people feel I’m talking down to them. People expect to see Mrs. Astor, not some dowdy old lady, and I don’t intend to disappoint them.”
Greenfield does her best to differentiate Marcos from the world’s benign, tiara-decked nonagenarians, though. Kingmaker foregrounds women who were allegedly detained and sexually assaulted after protesting the Marcos regime’s martial law, along with a series of Philippine citizens who allege that the Marcos government committed abuse and murder.
Marcos herself does most of Greenfield’s heavy lifting. She might have the money of a socialite, but she’s got the work ethic of a scrappy woman on the make. We see her, tireless, trudging through adoring crowds pressing the flesh, kissing babies, conferring with allies, and even singing at campaign rallies.
In fact, by the end of the film, having seen a parade of jewels, mansions, and art, one begins to wonder why that isn’t enough for the woman so notorious for avarice. During filming in 2016, she was already 87.
But what Greenfield shows throughout the film, as Marcos continues to hustle and claw at power as she approaches 90, is that the matriarch is not like the documentarian’s other subjects. Money may well be at the heart of her political aspirations—but it’s pure power that consumes her, body and soul.
To contact the author of this story: James Tarmy in New York at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Rovzar at firstname.lastname@example.org
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