Netflix mining: ‘Park Avenue’ haves and have-nots

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parkavenueAlex Gibney’s appalling look at the disparity between the rich folks living at 740 Park Avenue and the desperately poor living on the same street a few miles away was aired on PBS in 2012.

“Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream” followed Gibney’s sharp examination of the Elliott Spitzer sex scandal “Client 9,” which showed how the subject’s reputation as a Wall Street watchdog contributed to his political demise.

Gibney has an ability to connect the dots in a way that eludes other, more narrowly focused documentarians, but he never loses sight of the fact that a non-fiction film must be entertaining to hold a viewer to the end.

I missed the PBS showing of the film which triggered controversy when WNET management “warned” one of the subjects of the movie — oil billionaire David Koch who has an apartment at 740 Park Ave. — in advance of the TV broadcast (Koch is a major funder of New York City arts institutions and has given money to public broadcasting over the years).

“Park Avenue” is now part of the ever-growing cache of documentaries that makes Netflix a major destination for fans of non-fiction filmmaking (the parkavenue2same afternoon that I watched the Gibney doc, I also caught up with the Sea World expose “Blackfish” and the charming New York shopping film, “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s”).

In his movie, Gibney found a perfect way to illustrate the gulf between the 1 percent super-rich and the rest of the country. While most of the film focuses on the building at 740 Park and the advantages its residents get from their wealth and political clout (New York Senator Charles Schumer is presented as a lackey of Wall Street and the super-rich) we see the hopelessness and squalor of the same street in the South Bronx.

The filmmaker uses New York real estate historian Michael Gross’ book on the building as a major source; Gross knows this subject better than anyone so his on-camera comments are also a big plus.

Gibney tracked down an ex-doorman for a sad and amusing interview about the surprising cheapness of the people he tended to, including Koch. The man thought he would be rolling in dough after Christmas tips were distributed, but instead received an education in how some people with big bucks operate.

“These guys are businessmen. They know what the going rate is—they’re not going to give you anything more than that. The cheapest person over all was David Koch. We would load up his trucks — two vans, usually — every weekend, for the Hamptons . . . multiple guys, in and out, in and out, heavy bags. We would never get a tip from Mr. Koch. We would never get a smile from Mr. Koch. Fifty-dollar check for Christmas, too — yeah, I mean, a check. At least you could give us cash.”

The doorman also talks about the eerie change in the youngest residents of the building, who start out as charming children, but somewhere in the early teen years, finally get the message from their parents, and begin treating the building staff like their own servants.

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Joe Meyers

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