A Public Reckoning
When you first see that guy in the cowboy hat at the beginning, you think, “Why are they putting this painter up front?” And then you learn that he was the booker and he knew Ashley. And then you think that Ashley is at the center of the story and it turns out that she’s not. Nothing in this film is quite what it seems initially.
“In New York,” observes painter Hulbert Waldroup, “Everyone’s like some sort of an animal. They’re hungry to make more money, hungry to get more sex, to date a prettier girl or a richer guy. Just hungry.” In New York, Eliot Spitzer was at home. He was hungry, certainly, but he was also exceptionally good at performing that hunger. His many performances form the center of Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.
Alex Gibney’s brilliant documentary opens Stranger Than Fiction‘s strong season with a special Monday night screening, followed by a Q&A with Gibney. The film makes no pretense of defending the former New York governor’s deception of his wife and family, or excusing his ridiculous choice to patronize the Emperor’s Club VIP. It does, however, situate Spitzer’s bad behavior and questionable character in multiple broader contexts, all in flux by definition. While this structure sometimes compares Spitzer’s downfall with the experiences of others (say, David Vitter, whose still-standing status leads Scott Horton to observe here that the “only difference, frankly,” between the two cases is the johns’ political party affiliations), but mostly it suggests the pervasiveness of just such behavior and character. Spitzer is not deviant, in this view, or even exceptional. He is, instead, a participant in a game that is at once too mundane and too creepy, one that no one seems inclined to challenge, but only to play as brutally as possible, and above all, to perform well.
Client 9 offers a series of striking but unsurprising interviews with the men who surrounded and fought with Spitzer, including former members of the governor’s team (advisor Lloyd Constantine, communications director Darren Dopp, and lawyer David Brown), his sworn enemies (AIG’s Hank Greenberg and former Republican leader of the New York State Senate Joe Bruno, who appears on his upstate New York farm, looking both virile and aggrieved), and Spitzer himself. His performance is admirably restrained, not so convincingly stoic, and seemingly self-aware: “I don’t think I said that,” he notes concerning a threat against John Whitehead, former chairman of Goldman Sachs, “I hope I didn’t say that. He and I had a heated conversation, it was a private conversation. It was me, it is me, and so be it. Sometimes I think it’s how you get things done.”
The answer demonstrates not only that Spitzer is doing his best to shape the story (to tell his “side”), but also to offer here an exceptionally “honest” performance, either edifying or ingratiating or both. Certainly, it suggests the slipping in and out of professional decorum and aggressive hard-politicking that the Sheriff of Wall Street enacted out daily, as well as his personal discomfort about it, either the act itself or retelling. In any event, he certainly looks more sympathetic here than former NYSE director Ken Langone, who pronounces his utter antipathy for Spitzer (“I like to believe I’m not a vindictive person… [but] I am defying my faith and I can’t forgive him” or again, “We all have our own private hells: I hope his private hell is hotter than anyone else’s”).
Predictably, the men’s ongoing conflict appears to be about money, as this represents ego, masculinity, or some other cliché. If Client 9 doesn’t precisely assert that this particular version has been shaped by a conspiracy, it does suggest that the business-as-usual crowd was loathe to have him roaring around as AG, pursing white collar crime cases that ranged from record labels’ payola schemes (2005) to computer chip manufacturers’ price fixing (2006) to NYSE Chairman Richard Grasso’s “excessive compensation” (2007). These and other prosecutions made Spitzer some “powerful enemies,” as Gibney says off-screen, including Langone and Greenberg. Gibney goes on to ask, “Did it ever concern you that they might have played a role in your downfall?”
While Spitzer says what you might expect (he brought it on himself, he’s like “Icarus”), the film has some other ideas too. Following from its primary source, Peter Elkind’s book Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Client 9 references a leaked United States attorney’s document showing that the prosecutor in charge of the case, Michael Garcia (a George W. Bush appointee who stepped down in 2008), was not only “spending enormous resources to go after a small escort service,” but also focused like a laser beam on Spitzer, not a little unusually, as most such cases go after pimps, madams, and other proprietors, not clients. Gibney narrates, “Was this a political hit?”
If that argument can’t be proved, the film does make another, more incisive and quite brilliant analysis, articulated here by three women, specifically, women who know something about performance. Cecil Suwal, 24-year-old madam for the Emperors Club VIP, eventually sentenced to six months in prison for “money laundering, conspiracy and conspiring to promote prostitution,” here seems quite open about her mistaken belief that as long as the business was serving high-end clients and, as Gibney phrases it, “presented it as a get-together service, [she wasn’t] doing anything illegal.” Both she and “Angelina,” who says the governor was a regular customer, observe that prostitution—especially at this economic level—is a consensual act between two adults.
Cece here appears to be rather charming, laughing out loud at the suggestion that Spitzer (not exactly passing as “George Fox”) was “interested in the companionship.” Rather, Cece observes, her experience plain, “This man is so paranoid, he’s just going to attract a situation.” That situation would involve not only Cece and her 63-year-old business partner/lover Mark Brener, but also “Angelina” (her professional name) doesn’t appear at all, but agrees to have her interview with Gibney performed by an actress, Wrenn Schmidt (a point made as you watch Schmidt being made up for her performance in the film). It’s an ingenious representation, drawing attention not only to “Angelina”‘s role in the film, but also to the cultural functions of prostitution, its artifice and role-playing, the contracts into which all participants enter.
According to “Angelina,” contrary to the teary-eyed show Ashley Dupré put on with Diane Sawyer, the girls working at Emperor’s Club VIP “are very smart women, who weren’t abused and don’t have a mental disorder. They just happen to believe in this kind of work.” That’s not to say they don’t take a measure of the men who pay for their services (Spitzer was a “trying to get his money’s worth type client”) or the men who come after them. She recalls that the agents investigating Spitzer “pressured me like they do on TV. They said, ‘We know you worked for this agency, we want you to look at some pictures, and tell us if you recognize anyone.’” When she wondered out loud whether she needed a lawyer, she adds, “They said, ‘Well, we want to keep this confidential.’” Their focus on Eliot Spitzer immediately struck her as odd. “I mean,” she says, “Why him and nobody else?”
As the investigation turns into its own performance (the Village Voice‘s Wayne Barrett notes, “You’re at a juncture on the road here once you realize that it’s just a governor with a hard-on, the most you’re gonna get out of this is a news story and a resignation. I think the government has better things to do”), the film turns to another performer for analysis, namely, Karen Finley. Having written a one-woman play called “Impulse to Suck,” about the longstanding intersections of “sex and state,” Finley begins with the ritual of the apology, the one where the politician or celebrity must acknowledge his error with his wife by his side. Looking at Silda Wall Spitzer during this moment in 2008, Finley says, “The public performance of this private moment was just so voyeuristic,” watching the wife as we were also invited to conjure “the painting in our mind of what we weren’t seeing, this very personal sexual private act.”
As the borders between private and public collapse, Finley ponders how they might matter, and for whom. As Ashley Dupré performs with Geraldo, as “Angelina” leaves the business to become a commodities trader, and as Eliot Spitzer conjures yet another self on CNN, Client 9 acknowledges the artfulness that makes up all our lives.