Scenes from the class struggle on Long Island

Barbara Kopple's "The Hamptons" offers a dishy, surprisingly soft-focus vision of the summer playground for America's elite and those who want to be them.

Published June 1, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

Happy, lovely, picturesque people charge into the crashing surf, merrily jump out of airplanes, thunder by on polo ponies, writhe on the dance floor, sail into the sunset and otherwise expensively enjoy themselves against the kind of soothing yet irritating soundtrack favored by massage therapists everywhere. Is it a Ralph Lauren ad? An Allegra commercial? The first few moments of "Santa Barbara"? A cursive title fades in and out as a golden retriever on a surfboard caps the sequence. It reads, "Once Upon a Time in the Hamptons," though this may change by the time the series airs in two parts Sunday and Monday night at 9 p.m. Reviewers have been asked to note that the official title of this "reality miniseries" is, simply, "The Hamptons."

After having won two Academy Awards for her portrayals of striking coal miners in "Harlan County, U.S.A." and striking meatpackers in "American Dream," Kopple turns her attention to the lives of what may arguably be the most privileged group of people ever to occupy a few square miles. "The Hamptons," her new four-hour documentary (split into two halves for ABC broadcast), tackles class, love and death in the notorious resort area that Billy Joel likes to call "the East End of Long Island."

Kopple ambles through the lives of various resident celebrities, socialites and picturesque, salt-of-the-earth locals, including fishermen, merchants, farmers and a soon-to-be-retired police lieutenant (who explains that his job is primarily service-oriented). Then there are the teeming hordes of middle- and service-class weekending hopefuls, who despite sleeping 35 to a house and spending their nights waiting in line, dream the really big dreams, like getting their picture taken for Hamptons magazine.

The fairy-tale credit sequence might have been meant as an over-the-top joke, but otherwise Kopple approaches her subject with surprising generosity and equanimity. Forget about juicy war stories from the help (there's not a single disgruntled nanny in sight, disappointingly). Nor is a peep heard from the owners of the mom-and-pop businesses that have vanished to make way for Armani and Donna Karan boutiques.

A local fisherman does point out that people come to the Hamptons in such numbers that they destroy the very thing they are looking for, eventually turning the place into a version of the place they came from. But if you're hoping for gory images of the class struggle, you might be disappointed. At best, there are some class scuffles, in the form of mild remarks made from the privacy of one's own trawler. (Though music mogul Russell Simmons does conclude his interview saying, "OK, so, you got some footage. You got some black people in the Hamptons, right?")

What social criticism exists is meted out in a slow drip -- and Kopple takes pains to distribute it more or less evenly among the superrich landowners and the social-climbing part-timers who invade the area on summer weekends. It's fairly clear from the outset that Kopple doesn't intend to hurt anyone too badly, and when they hurt themselves, she avoids dwelling on it. As a result, "The Hamptons" may be the only media product of 2001 to actually downplay the Lizzie Grubman scandal.

Kopple could easily have taken a bitchier tack, and no doubt the subject would have been handled differently by, say, Michael Moore. Her approach is pretty sly, and you have to read between the lines for her take on these people and their world. The result is a somewhat toothless -- if dishily enjoyable -- vicarious-delight viewing experience.

Still, as might be expected from Kopple, the hardworking locals come across as unanimously beatific. From Marilee Foster, a third-generation farmer who contributes a nature column to Hamptons magazine, to Nancy Atlas, a popular singer-songwriter and waitress, the folksy folks use the bulk of their on-camera time to meditate on the rhythms of their bucolic lives, decry overcrowding and call attention to the area's natural beauty. Soon they begin to glow with a kind of noble-savage sheen.

Strangely, the local celebrities also give off some light with their trendy noblesse-oblige attitudes. It's a wonder Bono and Sting don't come swinging in on twin vines, abandoned puppies in hand. When they are not working or attending parties, Hamptons locals and Hamptons royalty attend town meetings on coastal pollution and Billy Joel-hosted benefits, respectively. Christie Brinkley is particularly resplendent in her role as "passionate" environmental activist and mother. Alec Baldwin muses on the quality of the air and the light and the "palpability" of it all.

In fact, ensconced in their respective places, the gentry and the peasantry would appear to get along swimmingly. Plus, there are the usual perks of coming into contact with different cultures. As the young son of a local caterer observes on his way to the party for Candace Bushnell's new book "4 Blondes" at the Hilton manse, "Working at a party is fun. You get to meet new people. I met the president, Jon Stewart, Danny DeVito, Jon Bon Jovi. Maybe I'll meet Sarah Jessica Parker tonight."

Though they are given four hours' worth of rope with which to hang themselves, the über-haves come across as slightly insular and, at worst, cutely eccentric. At her book party, Bushnell explains the premise of "4 Blondes" to an elderly socialite posing as Harry Winston's Christmas tree. "It's about a girl who, every summer, finds the man with the biggest house and goes after him." The twinkling dowager opens her eyes wide and gasps, "Oh, how funny!"

"Philistines at the Hedgerow" author and perennial party guest Steven Gaines talks movingly, if comically, about his dog's illness. "When he first got doggie Alzheimer's, I was just brokenhearted. So I called the Animal Medical Center in New York, and I started going to therapy sessions with an animal grief counselor."

After Lizzie Grubman backs her Mercedes SUV into a line of people at Conscience Point, wounding many of them -- no mention is made, incidentally, of the infamous "white trash" remark, save for a sly peek at the cover of the New York Post -- a wealthy Lizzie supporter remarks, "I want to make sure that we understand exactly what happened. That parking lot is so darkly lit. Maybe she was coming around a corner and a whole crowd came running out? That happens, that is the kind of crowd that goes there." (The kind of crowd, one is led to understand, that runs into oncoming vehicles due to inferior breeding.)

Oddly but perhaps not surprisingly, it's the crowds queuing up to get into clubs that don't want them that get perhaps the biggest skewering in "The Hamptons." Gaines, playing the "Our Town" narrator role throughout the film, pretends to plead with Hamptons magazine publisher Jason Binn to get his picture in the magazine. (Gaines later describes Binn as "the Steve Rubell of our time," and it's unclear whether that's a compliment or an insult. Bushnell adds that Binn is the "kind of guy that inspired 'Sex and the City.'" Also unclear.) At a party he throws for Bushnell's book, Binn marvels at the success of "Sex and the City." When Gaines asks him if he's read "4 Blondes," Binn replies coolly, "I saw it. It's here."

Gaines laughs, then quickly reestablishes his allegiances. He notes, as Kopple's crew does, that a few gorgeous blonds have in fact been spotted ostentatiously reading the book by the buffet. "She got to Page 2," Gaines remarks of one girl. It's two pages more, incidentally, than he figures Marilee Foster could get the same party guests to read. "She writes about sunsets and things," he explains in another scene. He certainly doesn't think any of the summer people read her and if they do, they don't understand what she's talking about.

As Binn talks about the "aspirational" function of his magazine (giving the people who will never drive the car or wear the dress or date the girl or live in the house a glimpse of the car, the dress, the girl and the house), we get a pretty good look at his target demographic. There is Jacqueline Lipson, the husband-hunting marriage attorney who, evincing few recognizable human traits, explains, "I have to be engaged by 29, because I can't not be married by 30, because I have to have my children by 32, because I have to open my own practice. I have a whole life plan."

There is Neva Kanatani, a bitter Aussie waitress so intent on having a certain kind of "fun" (while simultaneously bemoaning the scarcity of "intellectual conversations" to be had in the area), that she systematically alienates every friend she makes over the summer. There is Helen Gurrera, daughter of a high-end New York grocer, who aggressively runs the Hamptons shop by day and desperately tries to get her picture taken by night. There is Josh Sagman, the glistening young "entrepreneur" who peddles $7 oxygen shots to club-going models and calls his father from his cellphone in the middle of dinner with two angry young women whose impassioned conversation about the maddening mating rituals of single New Yorkers has been rudely interrupted.

Save for a single, heartbreaking Oregonian investment banker who is doing her best to fit into this new world where no one seems to know that Oregon is not in the Midwest, the young aspirants don't come off too well. Their bald striving is grating enough to make you start to appreciate the way having a lot of money at least seems to take the Hilton sisters' minds off money.

As the celebrities worry "passionately" about nearby nuclear power plants and the fishermen wonder why they are forced to throw fish back into the water when there are hungry people in New York who would "love a piece of fresh striped bass," Sagman talks about not being ready for love, "business-wise," and Lipson attempts to convince a wary guy that she is "very sophisticated" and that her indiscriminate and painfully clumsy flirting is in fact "an art."

"The Hamptons" spans the entire summer of 2001, beginning with Memorial Day weekend and ending on Sept. 12. Between the plowing at Conscience Point, the sudden death of beloved restaurateur Jeff Salaway and the terrorist attacks on New York, Kopple couldn't have picked a more eventful summer. But as she seems to quietly observe, the Grubman scandal may have elicited another round of general opprobrium, but it will die down again like the others. It's not likely that this event, or the momentous ones that followed, will ultimately have a very profound effect on the Hamptons way of life.

Aiming for subtlety, Kopple misses more than a few opportunities to accomplish what one imagines was the purpose of the project: To make the viewer feel better about his lack of money, power and access. Maybe this is because, when confronted with the glaring stupidity of some of the luckier few, one feels the need to avert one's eyes.

Still, she gets in a few sly digs. At the end of Part 1, for example, we accompany Gaines to a Fourth of July party being held on the grounds of a $50 million house. Fireworks explode, the assembled crowd breaks into a rendition of "God Bless America," and a bouncy, blank-eyed guest remarks to Gaines, "You see the fireworks, and ... you know, people can say pooh-pooh to the Hamptons, but, you know, we're listening to 'God Bless America.' This is 'God Bless America.'"

"Well, this is the American Dream," Gaines replies.

"Absolutely. It's realized by a few, but I think those who are exposed to it ..."

Gaines grabs her by the elbow. "No, I think the story of the Hamptons is that it's realized by many. This is not a place where you were born with a silver spoon and you have to be a blue blood. I think everybody made it who comes here, and I think that's the new Hamptons."

It's a nice save, but you still get the feeling they're thinking what Kopple was thinking by summer's end: Dream your dreamy little dreams, but spare us watching you trying to arrive. Just call us when you get there.

By Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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