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How Park Avenue Billionaires Spend Their Money

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As part of the "Why Poverty?" campaign, TVO presents documentaries by filmmakers who are passionately committed to shining a light on the human condition and all of its successes and struggles. As it is with their films, the views expressed in TVO's "Why Poverty?" blog series are solely the opinion of the filmmaker.

When the producers of Why Poverty? came to me to do a film about poverty in the United States, I asked if I could do a film about wealth instead.

I tend to make films about perpetrators, rather than victims. Therefore, on this subject it seemed to be important to make a film that would investigate whether wealthy interests in the United States actually create poverty. There is no question that income inequality is increasing in the US. I wanted to find out, as the title to the series of documentary films suggests, the answer to the question of "why"?

More billionaires live at 740 Park Avenue than anywhere else in New York City. There are three denizens that are particularly interesting. The richest is billionaire David Koch (net worth: $25 billion), who is co-owner of Koch Industries. Another billionaire (a mere $4.7 billion in net worth) is Steve Schwartzman, co-owner of the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm. A third wealthy denizen is John Thain, the former president of Merrill Lynch.

What is interesting about these individuals is not their wealth, per se. It is the way they use their money to manipulate the political system to further enrich themselves, and to support initiatives which undermine the well-being and social mobility of the poorest Americans. Seen in the context of growing inequality, it is fair to say that these gentlemen -- and other wealthy individuals like them -- are purchasing policies that are creating poverty.

In focusing on these three denizens of 740 Park, I discovered an interesting answer to the question of why these extraordinarily wealthy individuals can imagine themselves to be victims, and why they are so hostile to those on the bottom of the social ladder.

A key part of that answer lies in the "Monopoly experiment" of Dr. Paul Piff, a social psychologist. In Piff's experiment, he openly rigs the game so that one person (out of two) is guaranteed to win. Despite the knowledge of that fact, the guaranteed winners in the experiment exhibit consistently hostile behavior toward the losers; display more greed rather than less (the winners inevitably hoard and consume far more of a strategically placed bowl of pretzels) and, worst of all, imagine that their victory is due, not to external factors, but to their own superior skill and intelligence.

How else to explain that Steve Schwartzman would compare President Obama's support of raising taxes on hedge fund managers -- who pay half the rate of hard-working firemen, nurses and police officers -- to Hitler's invasion of Poland? How else to explain David Koch's belief that President Obama is a socialist trying to destroy free enterprise even after he coddled American bankers with fawning policies designed to buttress wealthy interests? How else to explain that John Thain would spend a million dollars renovating his office and push through massive bonuses for his executives at Merrill Lynch, even as the failing firm was forced into a merger with Bank of America to ensure Merrill's survival?

Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream is an intentionally angry film. How could it not be when the chance of an infant dying is five times greater on the Bronx Park Avenue than on Manhattan's Park Avenue just across the Harlem River?

I felt that the contribution of this film could be a kind of focused rage against the dying of the light of the American Dream, slowly being extinguished by a flood of money.

Oddly, nothing made me more angry than the reflections of a former doorman at 740 Park, who told a particularly poignant story about the children in the building. Almost all the doormen maintained a great relationship with the kids as they bustled in and out of the lobby on their way to school or soccer games. But once they reached the age of 13 or 14 they stopped talking to the maids and doormen as if the kids' parents had told them that their passage to adulthood depended on an understanding of their innate superiority. Like the winners in the rigged Monopoly game, the children learned to treat losers with disdain, and to reach more deeply into that ever-growing bowl of pretzels.

Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream airs Sunday December 2 at 9 pm on TVO, and can be streamed at tvo.org/whypoverty following the broadcast.

Alex Gibney is an award-winning documentary director and producer. In 2008, he won an Academy Award for best documentary feature for his film Taxi to the Dark Side.