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March 11, 2014 permalink
Nature may abhor a vacuum, but it seems lawyers also abhor arenas of life untouched by their professional advice or air-quote helpfulness, which goes a long way to helping explain the $50 billion a year cottage industry in contentious divorce. A back-stiffening look at this sprawling problem—somewhat unsurprisingly unique to the United States in terms of its cost—director Joe Sorge’s documentary Divorce Corp. makes a persuasive case for the reform of family law court, and in particular an attempted decoupling of money from issues regarding parental custody and visitation rights.
Narrated by Dr. Drew Pinsky, Divorce Corp. unfolds as a methodological case study, and a shrewd takedown of a legal system in which more money passes through family law court than all others combined. Using their increasingly dexterous talents to manipulate a system of at least partially manufactured dissent, lawyers have driven up the national average in divorce fees to a bewildering $50,000, which is more money than a lot of folks make in a year. Litigants, we’re told and shown, are little more than grist for the mill.
Certainly any divorce is painful, and shot through with all sorts of private and very personal difficulties, shortcomings (real or perceived), anger and shame. That is a universal truth. Using a variety of interview subjects, though, Sorge’s film shows both how the American system of marital separation and annulment incentivizes conflict and, even more damningly, how basic mechanisms of fairness and indeed certain Constitutional rights (trial by jury, having the right to a lawyer if you are unable to afford one) that exist in criminal and civil courts do not exist in family law.
Divorce Corp. traces the evolution of the divorce-as-business boom back to then-California governor Ronald Reagan’s introduction of a “no-fault” dissolution law in 1969, a concept which quickly spread to the overwhelming majority of other states. Divorces became easier to secure and less of a social stigma, but also more complicated in terms of how to divide assets. Following the money, then, big law firms—almost none of whom were interested in divorce in the 1950s through the ’70s—insinuated their way into the process.
The film sometimes fails to delve quite deep enough; when it segues into the touchy subject of child custody evaluation, it alights briefly upon the failings of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality inventory, and the lack of formal training standards for such court-mandated professionals before bounding into more salacious anecdotal material, including stories of bribes and the take of Dr. Joseph Kenan, a California analyst with all sorts of explicit Facebook photos detailing a drug-fueled lifestyle of anonymous sex. In its home stretch, Divorce Corp. more rigorously compares the American system to that of Scandinavia , which has a comparable divorce rate but also has alimony limits and fixed monthly stipends for child rearing that remove the incentives for lengthy court battles surrounding custody.
Mostly, though, Divorce Corp. connects because has a deep bench of compelling and sympathetic interviewees from a wide variety of backgrounds. (The best character may be private investigator John Nazarian, an ex-cop who expresses disgust at the system while admitting to feeding his family off of the enterprise.) It also highlights in infuriating fashion the problems inherent in a system wherein attorneys in family court cannot be sued for libel, malicious prosecution or over-litigation, and jury-and-executioner judges who, dependent on campaign contributions for reelection, are not subject to conflict-of-interest oversight or review.
In an attempt to give his movie some stylistic pop, Sorge uses a number of placeholder reenactments in an attempt to dramatize some interviewee’s stories, and a couple of rudimentary animated segments to illustrate the difficulties involved in appealing a ruling or filing a motion against what might be a rogue judge. These are understandable if relatively uninspired choices. More effective is moody music, by composers Andy Sorge and Chris McClure, which underscores the undertow of an adversarial system glazed, in dispiritingly typical American fashion, with more needless antagonism.
Director: Joe Sorge
Writers: Joe Sorge, Philip Sternberg, James Scurlock, Blake Harjes
Narrated by: Dr. Drew Pinsky
Release Date: Jan. 10, 2014
The inevitable DVD of "Divorce Corp" will make an ideal gift for anyone who's been through a painful, expensive split-up. Directed by Joseph Sorge, whose web site offers a tie-in book, it's billed as "A shocking exposé of the inner workings of the $50 billion a year U.S. family law industry" that "shines a bright light on the appalling waste, and shameless collusive practices seen daily in family courts."
Those intensifiers should tell you what you're in for. "Divorce Corp" is less a nuanced documentary than a cry of rage. It's easy to imagine people who've shelled out a small fortune during a contested divorce, with or without kids underfoot, watching this film while nodding their heads and muttering, "Amen. Stick it to 'em."
Although it sometimes wanders off the righteous path to recount a depressing or perverse anecdote at length—such as the tale of a ridiculously expensive child custody evaluator who bragged of drug use and unprotected group sex on Facebook—for the most part it's a stylistically bland work. "Divorce Corp" is directed and edited at roughly the same level of imagination as a network newsmagazine story: talking head, talking head, talking head, cut to a chart, exterior shot of a courthouse, cut to another chart, talking head, capped by a segue along the lines of, "And if you think that's shocking, wait'll you hear this."
Any wit it exhibits is of the slow-twisting-of-the-knife variety. A sequence that picks apart the undefined legal phrase "the best interest of the child" is scored to a section of "March of the Sugarplum Fairies." Animated re-creations of witnesses' stories contain odd moments of caricature, as when a faceless stick figure representing a child custody evaluator takes a parent's hard-earned money and bolts like a cartoon swindler trying to make the next train out of town.
That said, I'd be shocked if anyone involved with "Divorce Corp" gave the briefest thought to making an artistic statement. This picture is just a statement, period—something like, "Divorce in the United States is needlessly complicated, expensive, unfair, and sometimes corrupt. Won't someone do something about it, for pity's sake?"
The damning facts and figures keep piling up, along with horror stories that give them human faces. The average contested divorce in the United State of America costs $50,000. Lawyers on both sides of a case crank out redundant paperwork, unnecessary motions and pointless letters because they get paid by the hour. Costs climb so high that soon-to-be-former spouses have to sell cars, houses and other possessions to pay legal fees, and sometimes judges pre-emptively denude their net worth by placing liens on their property. Nobody involved wants to end what this movie calls "the revenue stream." Judges are officially or unofficially in bed with lawyers for both spouses, as well as the various experts they assign to cases. It's a mutual backscratching thing. If the judge takes care of these people today, once the judge retires the recipients of largesse will take care of him, perhaps by hiring him to serve as a mediator or consultant.
Adding incompetence to corruption, the family court system is a steaming mess. Its various sections aren't governed by constitutional edicts that other institutions must follow. Power-tripping judges can indulge God complexes by lashing out against plaintiffs who protest their decisions. At one point the film tells of a man who wrote about his experiences in family court online and was ordered to delete his blog by the judge overseeing his divorce. This is but one of many examples the film gives of judges behaving like old-time ward bosses or petty gangsters. There are no stories in "Divorce Corp" of fair judges or decent lawyers or government employees who are good at their jobs, and little analysis of the larger systemic problems that might account for some of the horror stories. It's not that kind of film.
The fact that "Divorce Corp" is railing against targets that it's safe to hate (cold-hearted and anonymous institutions, incompetent evaluators, sleazy lawyers, corrupt or petty judges) gives it darkly exhilarating quality. If you want to let off steam, it's cheaper to go out into a field and scream your head off than to buy a ticket to see it; but then you wouldn't have the pleasure of seeing prominent lawyer Gloria Allred admit on camera that the goal of most attorneys in divorce cases is to "paper the other side until they can't take it anymore." If this movie were a person, it would be the kind of person you'd avoid because you fear he might explode one day and you'd rather not be there when it happens.
Addendum: On April 13, 2014 the move was posted to YouTube