April 26, 2011

Careful What You Win For: Lucky

Now what?

I've often thought that if I won the lottery (if I ever played it), I'd give away all of the winnings - every dime. A righteously charitable fantasy to be sure, but my thinking has been that despite my debts and bills, I'm generally not struggling to get by from paycheck to paycheck. There are many, many more people who "need" extra money due to various circumstances and long-term financial hardships. People like multimillionaire lottery winners, as it turns out.

Jeffrey Blitz's compelling new documentary, Lucky (out today on DVD), explores the lives of a half dozen or so individuals and families who have been awarded those giant cardboard checks. Winning millions of dollars not surprisingly had a huge effect on their lives, but not quite in the way I would have expected, and definitely not in the way many of them hoped.

One lottery representative equates winning the jackpot to "a death in the family", forever altering one's perspective on the purpose of their lives. Another lottery winner ($16 million) claims the prize to be "of the devil". And while nobody actually made this analogy, it struck me that nearly all of the winners assumed a Scarlett Letter of sorts, exiled to a life of loneliness and alienation. Marriages are broken up, friendships terminated, and lives threatened - even among family members. Needless to say, many of the life-fulfilling fantasies that we all associate with winning the lottery are dutifully stripped away by Blitz (whose brilliant Spellbound also laid bare the cold truth about the years and dollars spent in pursuit of a spelling bee title). 

Two insights in particular stood out to me. First, the fantasy of winning is often better than the reality of winning. A mathematician describes always having dreamed about buying a Lamborghini after hitting the jackpot, but after winning and being able to actually afford one, he realized that he didn't enjoy the things that he didn't work for.  So instead, he bought a Volvo. Moreover, he realized his millions couldn't buy him everything that he wanted, such as a beautiful singing voice, which he nonetheless painstakingly aspires toward with private voice lessons.

Secondly, winning the lottery changes your identity no matter how hard you try to retain your old self, as the perception of others about you becomes the truth you have to live with. Friendships and intimate relationships are strained as your identity as a member of the rat race (or any other "normal" member of society) is gone in the blink of an eye. No longer are you able to have casual conversations with friends, neighbors, and even relatives, to say nothing of more meaningful discussions. What is there to talk about? Your job? The daily grind? Your plans and hopes for the future? Your opinions? Forget it - everything about you is defined by the millions of dollars invisibly spilling out of your pockets. Fact is, you can't relate to anyone about anything; not surprisingly, most lottery winners keep their winning story to themselves, and are much more comfortable in the company of other lottery winners.

If nothing else, Lucky offers not just serious food for thought on class and culture, but also some solace for viewers whose numbers haven't come up yet in the Powerball. At times I actually wondered if the title of the film might have been meant to describe not the people on the screen, but rather the rest of us.

Lucky streets today on DVD from Docurama Films


  1. This sounds really interesting, as the subject matter certainly seems ripe for a documentary. I will have to keep an eye out for it. Great review.

  2. Thanks for stopping by - I hope more people get a chance to see it. It played well at Sundance last year (I think, maybe Tribeca) but never ended up getting a wide release. Surprising considering how popular Spellbound was.


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