Television

Conscience Point

Barbara Kopple’s Hamptons vacation.

Barbara Kopple fails to resurrect the romance of greed
Barbara Kopple fails to resurrect the romance of greed

To get to the Hamptons, you can drive, bike for eight hours, take a packed train, ride in a mint-scented bus with bristly seats, or fly in a private airplane. Jets are most convenient; if you are rich and have one, you can soar with the sea gulls over the pastel coast and its bright-white dream houses, surveying the Windex-blue pools and smaller, darker hot tubs. This is the opening vista of Barbara Kopple’s documentary miniseries, The Hamptons (June 2 and 3, ABC, at 9 ET).

Kopple’s still got it: the knack for verisimilitude, the willingness to invade cliques, the passion for installing cameras among the natives. She’s done it with coal miners, meatpackers, Woody Allen. And in her latest film, The Hamptons, she does it again with the high rollers, habitués, and fisherfolk of Long Island’s seaside towns. In an important sense, the movie is accurate: The film is precisely as unfocused and disappointing as the Hamptons themselves—short on action, long on musings about the metaphysics of money, and driven by the unfounded and nervous conviction that something must be happening somewhere around here.

You could be forgiven for wondering just what is supposed to be happening. What quality of these negligible small towns merits a tour on network TV—in prime time? But I don’t think you’re supposed to ask, and certainly the movie never provides an answer. Characters tentatively suggest that the Hamptons offer love (“The girls in our house are looking for boyfriends”) and work (“The Hamptons is networking!”), but in four hours of movie time, no one falls in love or does a masterful deal.

In May 2001, Kopple took what must have been an enormous crew to the beach to make a morally serious, no-nonsense vérité film. By August, reports back to the mainland had it that she was the luckiest filmmaker on earth: With Kopple’s cameras in the vicinity, an uncouth but well-off anti-hero named Lizzie Grubman had called someone “white trash” and then run down 16 people. Kopple had either caught the event on film or she hadn’t, but the fallout would be her bonanza: a golden opportunity to dramatize and spell out the presumed themes of her show—entitlement and resentment.

The brains behind Hamptons magazine
The brains behind Hamptons magazine

Well, grand old American themes these once were, but it turns out that even mighty Grubman can’t bring them back to life. The Hamptons has an air of Great American Documentary: the salty aphorisms of the people cut with the careless epigrams of the elite. Unfortunately, this brand of Great Americana doesn’t seem great or American anymore. Is it possible that, in the 77 years since The Great Gatsby, the danger and romance of greed, cars, and Long Island have finally lost their luster? With InStyle, E!, the tabloids, and Jason Binn’s Hamptons magazine devoted to demystifying the habits of the rich—and proving that a big swig of the dolce vita is on tap for just about anyone with a summer job—maybe we’ve become less gullible when it comes to the mystique of the leisure class. The rich aren’t magic. As Hemingway allegedly said, they just have more money.

Kopple aims to create a feeling of foreboding—as Fitzgerald did—but about what, exactly? All throughout the film, the specter of Sept. 11 looms, but making fall-of-Rome suggestions about the surprisingly modest revels in the Hamptons is tendentious and far-fetched. So Kopple refuses to make the connection at all, and her characters are left to their monotonous and desultory ways.

The beach, for its part, is left to its prettiness. In the film’s overture, Alec Baldwin praises “the light that Pollock painted, and de Kooning.” He’s onto something: If it’s not raining, the Hamptons look bright, clear, bald. You can make out lint, lines, rashes, and ridges of makeup that seemed invisible in New York City. But this light may be better for painters than for filmmakers: In The Hamptons, the action looks bland and overlighted, as if the whole movie were shot in sitcom studios.

Naturally, Kopple, with her union-friendly past, takes an upstairs/downstairs approach to the social divides of the Hamptons. This time, though, she doesn’t side with management or labor; all her characters are crudely, sketchily drawn. A few upstairs nobles appear (Puffy Combs, Craig Kilborn, Russell Simmons, Reese Witherspoon). Downstairs types include legions of waiters, bouncers, lifeguards, and gas-station attendants. And Kopple also introduces America’s overcrowded midstairs: a long procession of well-groomed, fun-loving middle-class kids of The Real World variety, plucky partiers who dutifully make the long commute from Manhattan each weekend.

Among these last is a good-natured dope named Josh who bear-hugs other guys with jet-black hair and dark-gold skin. Josh sells canned oxygen in bars. OK, so it’s a lame scheme, but so is Kopple’s attempt to turn it into metaphor. Surely she doesn’t expect us to be shocked that people will sell anything, even air. And the truth is, inhaling pure oxygen from colored canisters looks like Barnum-style fun. You choose your “flavor” (say, “Synergy”), strap on a tube, and clear your head with the real or imagined effects of O2. And it’s legal!

Finally, Kopple rewards our patience with her innumerable, tragic everymen by giving us one real glimpse of straight money, shiny and adorable: the Hiltons! The fortunate family throws a book party for the paperback edition of Candace Bushnell’s Four Blondes. Front and center are the sisters, Paris and Nicky. Pre-party, the beautiful Nicky speed-reads her wardrobe, passing over dress after dress. At last she pulls out something in rose: “I like this traditional wrap dress. It’s cute.”

This is low poetry, but when the Hiltons appear, the film seems to relax. The search is briefly over. Our longing for Fitzgeraldian goldenness is in reprieve. Is Nicky Hilton the film’s Daisy Buchanan?

We’ll never know. Nothing gold can stay, and the film is never again so pleasurable. Instead of shine, we get the tedious recitations of the prices of horses, cars, and houses. A strain of the movie’s dialogue runs together to suggest the never-ending drone about real estate. “In the ‘70s … we bought a building for $31,000, a block from the ocean! My mortgage payment was $203 a month! I think back on that and it makes me ill!!”

Christie Brinkley with husband (forget his name)
Christie Brinkley and husband Peter Cook: It’s a hard-knock life?

Kopple has not forsaken politics, but hers is not the lunch-bucket kind anymore. Christie Brinkley, Spalding Gray, and Michael J. Fox are understandably worried about a nearby nuclear reactor. And there is also the problem of water in the bay: “The EPA wants to discharge allegedly pure water into the bay. … I do not want anything to go into that bay!”

No pure water? It seems nothing short of Pellegrino will do.We are a long way from Harlan County, U.S.A. Kopple’s still got her talent for verisimilitude, but, due to limousine-liberal politics and a dated, sentimental aesthetic, she’s turned her realist’s eye on a lifeless scene.