With so much discussion about the toxic influence of money on politics, Alexandra Pelosi’s latest HBO documentary, “Meet the Donors: Does Money Talk?,” could hardly be better timed or more relevant.
Concerns about money’s influence in politics have gained steam since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, described as having “opened the campaign spending floodgates” and widely derided in progressive circles.
That said, Pelosi – daughter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and granddaughter of Tommy D’Alesandro, a congressman and mayor of Baltimore – sounds a trifle unconvincing as she seeks to bring a certain gee-whiz quality to her chats with billionaires, who reveal a host of motivations for supporting candidates, from pure ideology to the thrill some achieve from rubbing elbows with politicians.
Pelosi opens with a scene from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” noting that “big money” has “always been at the core of our democracy.” She then proceeds to travel the country to put faces on those who finance campaigns, most of whom see their largesse as altruistic (“a very noble undertaking,” as hedge fund manager Julian Robertson puts it) and virtuous.
“Meet the Donors” is impressive as a logistical feat, strictly in terms of who Pelosi gets to sit with her from both sides of the political spectrum. Some of them, like Haim Saban, are clearly wary, saying that she is “painting it in a negative way,” and that he donates millions to politicians “to allow them to put their message across to the people.”
Others are more pragmatic, speaking about the “perception of power” that comes from being able to get leaders on the phone, or what Elizabeth Bagley describes as her “vanity wall,” featuring pictures of her posing with various high-ranking officials.
The final third or so slightly deviates from the emphasis on wealthy donors to explaining “dark money” – which can’t be directly traced to a source, in the way that donations made straight to a campaign can – and those billionaires who are committed to campaign finance reform. That includes Vin Ryan, who calls the system as it exists “corroded,” and targets his donations to candidates who will promise to overhaul it.
Pelosi has now produced 10 documentaries for HBO. Despite being Pelosi’s daughter, she conveys a sense of bemusement at the absurdities of politics, while seldom appearing to judge anyone too harshly.
At the same time, it’s pretty clear what her answer to that “Does Money Talk?” subtitle is – the only question being whether anything, at this point, can be done to silence or at least muffle it.
“I like to be in the game,” says investment banker Brad Freeman. “It’s fun.” If nothing else, “Meet the Donors” is an introduction to those whose idea of politics as a “game,” to quote a very old joke, is playing Monopoly with real buildings.
“Meet the Donors” premieres Aug. 1 at 9 p.m. on HBO.