DIVORCE CORP. Review: Money Changes Everything
Like many other things today, divorce has lost a lot of its societal impact, a lot of its shock value. It wasn’t that long ago – certainly within the lifetimes of people alive now – that divorce was considered shameful and scandalous. Today, divorce is commonly a headline or a punchline (or both); sightings of parents making kid-swaps in convenience store parking lots are routine; and just about anyone can spout the “50% statistic” about divorce. People also know that divorce can be messy and expensive. But a lot of people don’t know just how messy or how expensive it can be, and who – or what – just might be to blame for the muck and the money. Director Joseph Sorge‘s Divorce Corp. attempts to make those things known.
The documentary opens with a little statistical rope-a-dope. The first statement to appear onscreen is the obvious one: 50% of US marriages end in divorce. It’s the next statement that goes for the knockout: Divorce is more than a 50 billion dollar a year industry. That’s “billion.” With a B.
Through the traditional combination of data-fueled graphs and animation, interviews with a wide variety of people, and a smoothly delivered narrative (courtesy of narrator Dr. Drew Pinsky), the documentary attempts to present the case that because the divorce industry – a euphemism for the US Family Court system – has structured itself in such a way that it acts beyond and above the law, it has become corrupt and favors no one but itself. “Itself” is defined as the judges, lawyers, and other key players who make staggering sums of money.
Divorce Corp. is a curious exercise in documentarian extremes.
To the positive extreme, the film uses a blend of data, cases, and interviews (with judges, lawyers, spouses, ex-spouses, and others) – and does so early and often – to expose the flawed construct of the US Family Court system, and does so by pointing out some things that maybe I should have already known. For example, I never knew Family Court is a “Court of Equity,” not a “Court of Law.” As such, no one has the right to an attorney in Family Court. (The film makes a big deal of this, going so far as to state this denies people their constitutional rights to legal representation. That’s a debate for another platform.)
Also interesting is how the film lays out the money trail to highlight that it isn’t just the lawyers that get rich. Judges also get rich through various (legal) means, as do other players, like parenting evaluators (in custody cases) and court-appointed mediators. There is then an overarching lather-rinse-repeat rhythm to the process, as lawyers file mountains of paperwork, which begets the filing of additional paperwork mountains by other lawyers, which motivates the judge to take additional action that creates the need for more paperwork, all of which goes on and on – sometimes for years and often times longer than the marriage itself – and adds up to stacks of cash. (According to one statistic cited in the film, the average divorce costs $50,000 from start to finish.)
To the negative extreme, though, the film goes to great lengths to find the ugliest “actual” stories to tell. These are tales not just of greedy lawyers (one attorney boasts an hourly rate of $950), but of ruthless judges, unfit evaluators, and a system that thrives on the most corrupt strain of back-room quid pro quo. In one tale, a judge strips custody of a woman’s children because she goes to the media. In another, a father is arrested because he refuses to remove a blog that is critical of a judge. And in the worst tale, a parenting evaluator who attempts to blackmail a mother is later found to be involved in or associated with behavior that (the film implies) belies the responsibility his formal role requires him to take.
Presenting these stories, and more like them, is the film’s great misstep. Any good will gained in the early stages of the film (no matter how overzealously some of the “facts” are presented) is lost by the implications that the excessive (and excessively lurid) tales make. Their cumulative narrative indirectly suggests that because the system is bad, and these particular people from within the system are bad, then surely all people within the system are bad. As this message is pounded home, the film shifts from being a message movie to having an agenda.
I don’t know anyone in the Family Court system, but surely some of them are good guys.
Divorce Corp. is at its best when it efforts to present information that exposes the considerable flaws in the US Family Court system. Once it strays from that, though, it becomes nothing more than a series of salacious segments loosely attached to the social cause the first half of the film championed so well.