The rampant financial exploitation of the elderly that often goes unpunished in the United States is certainly strong material for a wrenching, irresolvable film. The elderly are always a sensitive topic anyway, as they remind everyone else of death’s looming grasp while simultaneously requiring an amount of care and attention that everyone else would rather devote, not entirely unreasonably, to tending to their own lives. There’s a simmering tension between the American elderly, now mostly comprised of the baby boomers who flirted with revolution once only to eventually pack in their tents for some egg rolls at P.F. Chang’s, and their children, who, whether they went to college or not, might consider themselves lucky to have a menial wage and their old room in, yes, their baby-boomer parents’ home. Frustration, desperation, and need can reveal one’s ugliest, most submerged feelings in a heartbeat, and for a middle-aged person or younger it can be awfully tempting to marginalize their aging family members as crones who had their chance and should now just politely go away so someone else can have an opportunity to build something of their own.
Last Will and Embezzlement, an impassioned plea to take crimes, particularly of financial exploitation, against the elderly seriously, is most certainly not that film. While the documentary occasionally touches on the class tensions that probably compel law enforcement to devote their limited resources to practically any crime that isn’t elderly exploitation, it never delves beyond surface-level outrage to examine why the elderly are so susceptible to various mortgage scams (short answer: loneliness) or why the criminals target them (a more complicated answer involving resentment, entitlement, and simple convenience). The filmmakers sentimentalize all aging people as helpless lambs at the mercy of physical and mental ailments and demonize all crooks as jackals circling soon-to-be-fresh corpses—a tactic that has the peculiar, offensive effect of condescending to the very people that the doc is clearly meant to reach.
The filmmakers are clearly invested in the material (co-writer/co-producer Pamela S.K. Glasner’s father is one of the victims discussed), but they wouldn’t appear to have any sense of how to actually put a film together. Last Will and Embezzlement is inept, unwatchable, and sometimes tastelessly exploitive; the tone is eerily similar to those black-and-white TV ads that use disgusting pictures of amputated limbs or abused animals in an effort to guilt you into quitting smoking or adopting a dog. The film, which occasionally features a perversely unguarded Mickey Rooney (you sympathize with him for unintended reasons, as the filmmakers allow him to embarrass himself for theoretical sensation) is often redundant and hysterical: An interview with an attorney expounding on the dangers of trusting strangers is countered with an interview of a counselor on the dangers of trusting strangers and so on. Occasionally, the actor Artie Pasquale will appear against a backdrop to offer laughably purplish sentiments like “Wherever there are humans and money, people who are weak and others who are strong, there will always be snakes and vultures and other creatures of prey laying in wait for their first opportunity to exhibit the worst humanity has to offer. And anytime you have a set of laws, there will always be those who spend all their time and energy finding ways to corrupt or circumvent those laws for their own avaricious end.”
Last Will and Embezzlement is so obnoxiously simplistic that you find yourself strangely unsympathetic to its objectively inarguable aim to promote greater standards of elder care. (It doesn’t help that this doc is a complete dud aesthetically too, as it would fit right in with the commercials for magic food blenders and miracle diet pills that gum up late night TV.) There’s one story of a widow taken in by a con while mourning at her husband’s tombstone that’s emotionally complicated and authentically heartbreaking because you’re allowed to feel the victim as a woman as opposed to an endangered something or another that we must take into our healing hands. But otherwise the film is useless, as the people in danger won’t comprehend it and no one else will be able to stand it.