Ever since she was 30 and used her hand-held camera to make a movie about George W. Bush’s 2000 run for president, Alexandra Pelosi has specialized in making cute, slightly sassy, amiably simple documentaries about complicated subjects, whether it’s the political process, the tech boom or the immigrant experience. At 45, she’s still making them, and HBO is still showing them, even though they’ve been fairly thin of late. Her 10th and latest film, “Meet the Donors: Does Money Talk?” (airing Monday), is a lighthearted but characteristically earnest attempt to explain the influence of megadonors on presidential campaigns.
Spoiler alert: Money is important. Pelosi excels at telling you something you already know; her last doc, “San Francisco 2.0,” explained that only the rich can afford to buy a house in San Francisco these days and asked whether that might be undermining the artsy, bohemian nature of what made the city so cool in the first place. (Ya think?)
On this outing, Captain Obvious looks up and calls on the nation’s biggest individual campaign donors to see if they’ll talk to her camera (it still goes wherever she goes) about their motivations for giving personal millions to 2016’s presidential hopefuls. “All you have to do is write a big check and you, too, can be part of the endless circuit of mystery appetizers,” says Pelosi, who, yes, is the youngest child of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Few take her up on her offer, but they include media biggie Haim Saban, a reliable Clinton megadonor; energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens; investor J.B. Pritzker of the Chicago Pritzkers; and Manhattan supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis, who has given millions to Republicans and Democrats and has a vanity wall of photographs with presidents and lawmakers a mile long.
“I remember my mother-in-law said to me, ‘John, you want to pee with the large dogs,’ and I laughed,” Catsimatidis tells Pelosi. “I want to be at a level where if I pick up the phone and want to call somebody, that that phone is going to be answered.”
The conversations unfold like this for most of the documentary’s hour (which still feels a tad long), with the donors rejecting any suggestion of quid pro quo and instead playing up their generosity as an expression of patriotism. Only in the last 15 minutes or so does Pelosi grapple with corporate donations or the millions now being donated in the name of campaign finance reform. And, like most of her recent films, she exits with a safe shrug: It’s just the way things are; maybe they could change, but maybe not.
Still, there’s something to be said for Pelosi’s playful rapport (especially with the GOP donors) that many Beltway journos have tried to imitate but few can pull off. It comes easily for her.
Perhaps too easily. After her first film, “Journeys With George,” Pelosi made her best and most ambitious works — about children who live in the motels that surround Disneyland; about disgraced evangelical pastor Ted Haggard. It’s tempting to keep returning to politics, especially in 2016, but Pelosi is better when she’s further afield.
Meet the Donors: Does Money Talk? (one hour) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO, with encores.