“My father told me nothing is eternal,” says Quang Dao. His own experience seems a testament to that simple observation. He and his wife Mai keep an image of the boat they and other refugees used to escape from Vietnam, to remind their children, he says of “what we did for them.” They keep this picture enshrined in their home in Illinois, an elaborate, expensive structure featuring an indoor pool, sauna, and a glass bridge leading to the kitchen.
Quang’s eyes fill with tears when he remembers leaving his parents behind during the 1970s. “That was agonizing,” he says. But, Mai adds, the frightened survivors on the boat were heartened when, after days at sea, they saw dolphins, glinting in the sunlight. “We all cheered,” she recalls, at this sign of good fortune.
Quang and Mai could not have known that some 30 years later, fortune would smile on them again, when he and seven coworkers at a Nebraska meatpacking plant would share the winning lottery ticket in a record $365 million jackpot. Their story is one of several recounted in Lucky. Premiering on HBO 19 July, Jeffrey Blitz’s documentary considers how the lottery affects winners and players. The film is not so much about money and class, as it is about hope and disappointment. “This is a thing that can absolutely turn your life on a dime,” asserts Mike Pace, who dons a tuxedo each night to announce the names of Powerball winners. He goes on to wonder “who we become when fate turns our way and allows us to become whatever we want. Do you become what you dreamed you would or do you become what you most deeply secretly are?”
To its credit, the film doesn’t pretend to answer this fundamental question. Rather, it offers very different examples, people who have been changed by their luck, and, in one case, Verna of Newark, Delaware, an automobile worker who has played for 30 years and continues to believe she will win some day. “It’s just part of the day for me,” she explains, rocking gently in her chair. “I’ll have my coffee and my next step is to the store where the lottery is.” She plays twice a day, in the morning and then again in the afternoon, because “I don’t want to miss it, you know.” Her daughters play the lottery too. Her sister, interviewed separately, notes that Verna has “probably spent between $70 and $100 dollars a day.” She goes on, “I’ve got a healthy 401K for myself, but my sister, I don’t think it was that important for her to do that.”
Verna’s faith is hardly unusual. As the film reveals, one in five people believe that their best sot of getting rich is winning the lottery; the actual odds, a next panel reads, are one in 195,249,054. Lucky is less interested in the psychology of the lottery—why players believe even against such extraordinary odds—than in particular stories of lives changed.
One such story belongs to Kristine and Steve White, who won $110 million in Pennsylvania in 2004. At first, they say, they tried to stay where they were. But they soon realized that life in their 18,000 square foot home could not be the same. “In the beginning, I actually had days when I would have happily handed the ticket back to somebody else,” Kristine says. “I wasn’t ready to be this whole new person. I felt very isolated from people. All of a sudden, you don’t have much in common anymore.” A brief interview with neighbors illustrates: “I don’t feel like I’m on their wavelength anymore,” Amy admits, “I’ll be totally honest. I’m totally envious of what they have and that’s a struggle.” Kristine and Steve, along with their teenaged children, begin to embrace their new status: in one scene the couple appears on a Lear jet toasting their good luck with Dom Perignon. “They’ve changed,” reports their son. “They’re more reserved and at the same time, a little more rowdy.”
Understanding that they no longer “fit in” with their old friends, the Whites move to Florida, where they enjoy a new home and Steve purchases multiple luxury cars. He smiles as he describes his new schedule, “managing the empire,” while Kristine and their daughter do volunteer work. “Giving back to the community is completely important to us,” they say, pleased that they’re able to write “big checks” to support survivors of the tsunami or local charities.
Robert Uomini, a Berkeley math professor who won $22 million back in 1995, also sees the money as a kind of calling. Initially, he says, he fantasized about buying a house in Tahoe and a Lamborghini. But he found new directions for his energy (ad his money) when he endowed a chair in the name of his most inspiring teacher, and then learned that, based on his story, other people began donating money to the University of California.
Uomini’s story contrasts sharply with that of William Post, whose winnings brought him pain and a kind of infamy. Describing the experience now, he advises winners to educate themselves on how to spend their money. He spent his $16 million quickly and without much thought, on clothing, cars, and breast implants for his wives. At the same time, his large family (including siblings, seven ex-wives, and many children and grandchildren) made demands and eventually, threats against his life. One observer puts it this way: “Breasts,” he says, “After they got them it was… it just changed the complexion of everything.”
Lucky doesn’t judge its subjects, or even compare them explicitly. The range of players’ experiences is intercut with animated lessons on how the lottery has functioned in American history (in 1823, for example, “Congress created a grand national lottery to support the construction of DC”). Though some winners find ways to make sense of their radical shift in circumstances (Quang Dao uses his money to set up businesses for his children and to support some 80 relatives back in Vietnam), some never figure out “who they are” (William Post lost everything) and still others are still sorting through their options. James, a lonely and suicidal hoarder before he won the Illinois State Lottery, then escorted by Inside Edition to Joseph A. Bank to buy a new suit; now he lives in a motel for $200 a week, feeding cats in the parking lot. As Mike Pace puts it, the lottery “might tell us a lot about who we are, what we dream of being what our most basic ambitions are.” And it might not.