A lot of thought has been put into exploring the possible science of what makes us happy. A spate of pop psychology pieces have explored the matrix of whether our romantic relationships are equitable enough, how we should feel about children, did we ever develop coping mechanisms for life’s setbacks, do we find our work meaningful -- much of their findings go against the grain of conventional (read: capitalist) wisdom. But all of these theorists agree on one point, as long as our basic needs our being met, money changes nothing when it comes to being happy. In fact, all of these pieces cite the same study my Economics professor (and also Notorious B.I.G.) was touting 10 years ago, once you make $40,000 a year, more money will only bring you more problems. A figure that seems oddly impervious to inflation or cost of living increases.
Jeffrey Blitz’s (Spellbound, Rocket Science) breezy documentary Lucky looks at a handful of lottery winners to see how a sudden influx of hyper-wealth changed their lives. Blitz opens by interviewing people in a convenience store buying lottery tickets for a jackpot that’s reached over $250 million. Blitz has selected a store near a homeless mission for maximum poetry, and their lotto aspirations cuts a seemingly wide swath of the human condition from “I just want to help people” to “America owes me one”.
In Lucky, the lottery winners who started out with structured, middle class lives all attempt to maintain normalcy, they each put enough money into a trust to ensure a lifelong safety net for their children, they might buy a nicer car -- but they typically go about their lives as much as possible -- one woman even vows to keep her job at a meat-processing plant. But a later check-in shows that their one lucky break has earned the contempt of their friends and extended family, worsened fissures in marriages and made the gig at the meat-processing plant seem a lot less desirable.
The people who struck it rich at a point when they were barely scraping by fare even more poorly. Having no framework to manage money or gauge the caliber of the people around them, they were each left vulnerable to manipulative bottom-feeders and easily seduced by ostentatious spending that eventually collapsed in on itself. Six jet planes, seven wives (fourteen breasts enhanced), five hundred pairs of pants and a life-sized Nativity scene flown in from Spain (never opened) reads like a Craig’s List ad that doubles as a cautionary tale.
Blitz appears to believe the one true “winner” of the bunch is Quang Dao, a Vietnamese immigrant who experienced grinding poverty and strife as a child and as a young adult settled in Lincoln, Nebraska. Dao now has a massive family (totaling 30 in the States and 80+ back in Vietnam) that he is able to make comfortable with massive homes and set up with their own businesses. It’s telling that this distinctly American enterprise is only able to create lasting enrichment for the people with none of the expectations or interest in the mythology Americans have created around the lottery.
After experiencing such meteoric rises and falls each person grows reflective about why they won so much money and what life lesson can be taken away from it. Even the tuxedo’d host of a Powerball show waxes philosophical as he applies pancake makeup, believing he has been given an important post in the world and must act accordingly.
Even if you can’t buy into the notion that people win the lottery For A Reason, Lucky dismantles the idea that sudden wealth merely emboldens the greater or weaker elements of a person’s character -- it throws people into a hyper-privileged chaos that most are ill-equipped to handle. It’s a nice problem to have but beware the warning of Biggie Smalls.
Lucky airs on HBO July 19th.