Arecent report from the Boston Centre on Wealth and Philanthropy from 2011 concludes that extreme wealth, e.g. sudden inheritance, can deprive people of the fundamental joys of life. Additionally: a life without work or without meaningful activity due to economic comfort often creates an emotional vacuum and obtuseness.
The first film to touch on this topic is The Will made by the Danish director Christian Sønderby Jepsen. It is the story of two brothers who are about to inherit a fortune from their grandfather on their mother’s side. Both brothers live in the outskirts of Denmark. One of them, Christian, a drug-addict has been homeless for five years. The other brother Henrik, the narrator of the film, is an unemployed provincial hustler with sideburns and sunglasses like his idol Elvis, and is separated from his wife. He lives in the provincial city of Skals with an apartment full of marihuana-plants for which he cares as if they were his own children. The two brothers are connected through a staggering relationship with their father and the constant need to fulfill their immediate desire for beer, hash and rock’n roll. Now their mother’s father is dead and maybe the inheritance can be fulfilled. Wealth could change a life in the shadows to a life that fulfills their dreams. But will a great inheritance also remove the destined traumas of family? Will the desire for a sudden reward remove the profound feelings of angst, despair and loneliness that permeate the lives of the two losers? This is the underlying question of this compelling and fascinating tale of human destiny.
Through old family photos and video-clips the two brothers describe how and why their lives have reached a complete dead-end. An alcoholic mother who died from drinking, a father who was never a good example – like when he took them on a trip to Thailand when they were teenagers, and introduced them to local prostitutes.
The loss of their mother is a recurrent theme and it all adds up to a picture of being brought down, of loneliness and despair. Now they are both hoping for the great inheritance – but this, the daughter, Aunt Petra in Germany, who lives on the other side of the border, wants to keep for herself.
In a moving scene, after having a quarrel with his wife from whom he is separated, Henrik, driving his car, asks why you need a big house if you have no friends to come and visit you, why you need a big bedroom if you have no woman who loves you, or if you have no desire for fancy meals. Both poetic, tragic and full of humour, the director portraits his characters with a consistent solidarity, displaying and exposing the conflicts within the family – broken promises and lies. The main character Henrik reminds me a bit of The Dude from The Big Lebowski, a loser who knows when he has committed a sin and yet still looks for the Good and wants to live an ordinary life. To Henrik, his existential healing becomes more important than the money. And yet it all seems to be a life on the edge of the abyss.
The funny episodes reveal a more subtle human and tragic dimension. As the film progress we have stopped laughing and are mostly smiling now since we are profoundly moved by real emotions far from any kind of reality-TV and its hedonistic types. The truth of the two brothers’ existential struggle is much more real than the fiction of the upcoming inheritance. When Henrik proclaims at a late stage, in the style of Jim Morrison and with a view of a beautiful lake: “I am the lizard-king, I can do anything”, we know how fragile he is. But also how much he wants to seize life. It is as if life is too up-front in all its cruelty to be overtaken by the greed for money. And in the two brothers’ case – despite how poor they are, living on the lowest level of welfare in Denmark – it is apparent that money itself won’t facilitate the necessary change.
The other film is Seduced and Blackmailed, by Aldo Gugolz, based on investigation by Romeo Regeness. As opposed to a serious documentary, the film belongs in the category of sensational journalism. It’s very much equivalent to what TV stations can put together over a couple of weeks.
The film is about Swiss Helg Sgarbi, a young, attractive man educated at law school in Zürich who managed to seduce and blackmail extremely wealthy European women over a seven-year period from around 2000 to 2007. The most prominent of them was the wealthiest woman in Germany and one of the richest in the world, Susanne Klatten, a 46% shareholder in BMW. Confessing to the charges in Munich Court got Sgarbi six years in prison. Apparently Sgarbi’s great skills in high-society, gigolo service is only half of the story.
The other half is a story of greed combining sex, the Mafia and spiritual enlightenment. The Italian entrepreneur Ernano Baretta was for over 16 years (and still is) the leader of a spiritual Christian sect and a self-acclaimed Saint able to heal people. In a small village near the Adriatic Sea he convinced rich women to donate large amounts of money and, in some cases, their whole savings and pensions. Claiming to bear the stigmata of Christ, Baretta told the women that having sex with him would heal their wounds. One of them lost her whole pension, went home to Switzerland, and died in poverty.
From the beginning Helg Sgarbi has been an important member of this sect. Sgarbi calls Baretta “a spiritual father for his life”. Probably most of the money Sgarbi managed to blackmail from rich European women went to Baretta’s estate in Italy and his hobby of collecting the most expensive cars. Over 30 cars from Porsche to Lamborghini were installed in his garage.
At the same time his sect members who spent their days in hard labour lived on almost nothing. Several of them fell into depression. This part of the story is told by an earlier sect member called ‘Petra’ in the film. Her bearing witness to the bizarreness of this weird cabinet offers a portrait of Baretta as a narcissistic manipulator who allocates himself the role of a semi-Christ to seduce vulnerable and lonely women purely for financial gain.
The film ends before the charges against Baretta are settled. But a more insightful story of Sgarbi’s life and project is missing; it’s interesting but more material would have made for a more critical and less sensational documentary.