The opening scene of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Kingmaker shows Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines, handing money to children from the inside of a van stopped at an intersection. The stacks of paper currency that Marcos distributes throughout the film seem limitless, as do the throngs of children who line up to receive them. This initial act of beneficence, which is surely also a canny bit of self-promotion, ends abruptly when the traffic light turns green, and Marcos’s van tours the streets of Manila. “Before my time there were no beggars,” she says. “I had a place for them.”
This sort of reflection—at once nonsensical, deluded, self-aggrandizing, and menacing—is a dispiritingly common aspect of contemporary strongman politics, and the most depressing idea that The Kingmaker advances is that no person of stature, however ignominious, can ever be forced from the halls of power. Whether or not Marcos is aware that Greenfield (in her photography, as well as the films The Queen of Versailles and Generation Wealth) has framed her career around scrutinizing the fabulously rich, the legendarily profligate woman appears unconcerned about any potential critique. She has survived and overcome strong opposition for decades, and the true shock of Greenfield’s film is how close to the top she is again.
Before the documentary gets there, Greenfield cannily indulges Marcos’s view of her own life story: of the young beauty who abandoned a potential true love because she sensed the future clout that an army officer named Ferdinand Marcos could attain, and of the media’s love affair with a glamorous first lady, who tirelessly traveled the world charming dignitaries because her husband was afraid to fly. Unfailingly on message, Marcos peppers her rise with intimations of tragedy and modesty, revealing that she had to be institutionalized because of the stress of the political spotlight and mourning the fact that her disgraced husband remains encased in glass, as her political opponents refuse to grant him a state funeral.
Viewers of Greenfield’s previous work will be familiar with some of the tactics The Kingmaker employs to insert critique into its luxurious, saturated tableaus. At one point, Marcos guides us through a clearly staged array of framed photos from her husband’s administration. Moving around two crowded tables, she knocks one photo on the floor, and continues speaking as the sound of a helper sweeping glass comically interrupts the rest of the scene. Other images (depictions of a semi-nude first couple, paintings of Imelda as a water goddess, and asides where she asks aides about her physical appearance) need no such embellishment.
Where Greenfield’s prior films have landed as rather facile examinations of the insanity of American wealth, this one excels at juxtaposing the glitz of Marcos’s infamous shoe collection (she’s said to have never worn the same pair twice) with the plight of her administration’s victims and the continued growth of violence and wealth inequality in the Philippines. The documentary’s central act chronicles the many abuses of power during the Marcoses’ 20 years in power. Given that span and the sheer breadth of corruption of the regime, The Kingmaker rushes through years of tumult: a sustained period of martial law, state-sanctioned murders, embezzlement, and unfettered development that displaced thousands and created the underclass that Marcos herself is so keen to unsee. The film largely yields to career diplomats and Marcos’s political opponents to illuminate the truth of her time as first lady, though Greenfield’s crew spends a great deal of time on Calauit Island, which Marcos had emptied of its citizens and repopulated with exotic animals from Africa.
The Calauit footage, rife with sentimental images of injured and deformed animals, is a frustrating distraction from the human lives devastated by Marcos, but the film rebounds strongly as it follows the 2016 vice presidential campaign of Imelda and Ferdinand’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. Imelda clearly sees her son as the last possible opportunity for her family to again earn paramount power in the Philippines; he, like a Bush scion, seems to have accepted that this is the family business despite evidently being in over his head.
If The Queen of Versailles comes off as quintessentially American in its display of stupid, awe-inspiring ambition, The Kingmaker confirms that the ruthless knack of the wealthy and powerful to remain so is a universal impulse. Though Bongbong loses the race to a social activist, the film ends happily for the Marcos dynasty, but with a genuine sense of foreboding for democracy in the Philippines and beyond. Throughout the film, the openly murderous former mayor turned plutocrat Rodrigo Duterte is a looming absence, flickering to mind whenever Imelda praises her interactions with Richard Nixon or Saddam Hussein. The Kingmaker ends with Duterte and the Marcoses forming a new dynasty, a development Greenfield devastatingly frames around political rallies full of rabid fans clad in red.