It’s where FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shook hands in January 1992; where Jamie Dimon told CNBC last year that the only financial market bubble was in sovereign debt; and where Henry Kissinger, George Soros, Bono and so many more are regulars.
World leaders and chief executives, you cannot visit the “Magic Mountain” of Davos, as you were meant to this week, to join the jet-setters in panels on climate change, inclusivity or the fourth industrial revolution — but if you are missing the chance to mingle with the one per cent, you need to take to the small screen; high on my list of recommended watching is Agnelli, the 2017 HBO documentary streaming on Amazon.
From playboy to captain of industry, his world is forever gone, but Gianni Agnelli left his mark. He controlled Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati and Ferrari while he heavily invested, owning a stake in a quarter of all big companies listed on the Italian stock exchange, plus Juventus, of course. In the 1970s, during the period of civil unrest, he stayed in Turin even after Aldo Moro was kidnapped and killed by the Red Brigades.
His courage and integrity lent gravitas to the flamboyant elites of the second half of the 20th century, for his was not a hollow life. According to the people interviewed in the documentary (from Kissinger to his butler), every woman was in love with Agnelli and every man wanted to be him. He wore immaculate clothes, hosted black-tie dinner parties and owned a vast collection of contemporary art, private planes, yachts and villas all over the world. He had an enormous appetite for life: sex, cars, sports.
At the time, for a man of his wealth, looks and charisma, it was almost expected of him to have mistresses and so he did, maintaining stylish garçonnières in various cities. This was part of a sumptuous lifestyle: sailing boats, flirting with Jackie Kennedy on the Amalfi coast, crashing a Ferrari in Nice and jumping from helicopters. Everyday life was a let-down and Agnelli undeniably needed the adrenaline but the documentary is subtle enough to reveal that no person is just one thing. The most harrowing part comes when Agnelli lost his son. Edoardo Agnelli was found dead at 46 on a river bed beneath a motorway viaduct near Turin, known as the “bridge of suicides”.
A second must-watch on a one-time member of the global elite is Room 2806: The Accusation, a recent docuseries in four episodes on Netflix that examines the promiscuity of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. “Life without passion isn’t worth living,” the French economist said in a television interview years before he became the managing director of the IMF (2007-11) and long before he was considered for the French presidency.
When Lehman Brothers collapsed, Strauss-Kahn became an important figure in the negotiations to keep the global financial crisis from sliding into a depression, while his handling of the Greek crisis, at its onset, may have prevented a potential disintegration of the eurozone. And yet, the IMF famously deploys financial assistance to poor countries in exchange for tight controls. It’s all about restraint and fiscal discipline on the other side.
One reason to watch this fast-paced documentary is to witness the lack of impulse control in a man leading a global financial institution. In May 2011, Strauss-Kahn was accused of sexually assaulting a maid in a Sofitel hotel suite in New York. Charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence but the incident necessitated his resignation and threw him out of the presidential race for good.
Still, footage of Strauss-Kahn’s perp walk on Rikers Island played in loops on television channels around the world. Reports of wild soirées, orgies and affairs followed. In an interview with CNN, Strauss-Kahn denied that he had a problem with women. He insisted that his only mistake was to think that his private life was nobody else’s business, despite the fact that he was in high office.
The CCTV footage used in the show gives the aura of a political thriller as the story is reconstructed through multiple interviews. Each testimony is compelling in its own way, from the former deputy chief of the New York Police Department to Strauss-Kahn’s assistant at the IMF, but ultimately it is a sex worker who gives the most heartbreaking verbal affidavit: yes, she exchanged money for sex but had pleaded with him not to engage in a specific — to her, transgressive — act, a supplication which he allegedly ignored. Following Strauss-Kahn’s journey in chasing adrenaline, his seeming callousness and inevitable downfall confirm that he was doomed to his own patterns, which he tried to cover under the wraps of sensuality (“la passion!”).
This year, due to extraordinary circumstances, the World Economic Forum will convene its Special Annual Meeting in Singapore in May. But make no mistake: it will return to Switzerland in 2022. Davos, as in Thomas Mann’s vast and complex novel The Magic Mountain, is not just an Alpine town but a symbol that refracts and shapes our image in the world.
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