Both the luckiest and the unluckiest thing to happen to director Barbara Kopple’s four-hour, two-night glam-umentary, The Hamptons, was the summer 2001 arrest of publicist Lizzie Grubman. Grubman is, in case you’ve forgotten, the sullen power brat with a big SUV who ran into a bunch of people partying in the Hamptons. The fact that Oscar-winning documentarian Kopple (”Harlan County USA”) had been shooting all around this tony Long Island sprawl, where celebs and PR plankton like Grubman spend many of their hot-season months, placed the filmmaker in a prime position to shed a bit of light and offer some schadenfreude on this tabloid-perfect scandal. But instead, on the first night of ”The Hamptons,” we get some footage of Grubman serial air-kissing at a run-of-the-mill party, and upon the start of the second evening, a few shots of the newspaper headlines about the incident. Kopple gets some reaction from the hardworking locals — restaurant workers and middle-class folk who live in the Hamptons year-round (and who, to no surprise, think she’s a little stinker who’ll get away with minimal punishment when the case goes to trial). Anyone tuning in for juicy Grubman grub will be disappointed. On the other hand, Kopple gets to place the incident in a more interesting context than tabloid fodder. By night 2 of ”The Hamptons,” we’ve already spent a lot of time with the rich (oh, those rascally celery stalks Nicky and Paris Hilton!), the famous (Jerry Seinfeld, Craig Kilborn, Chevy Chase, and entirely too much of Billy Joel), the semifamous (Larry ”Bud” Melman! Bravo’s James Lipton!), and the desperate wannabes (Bravo’s James…oh, never mind) who frequent places like the nightclub into which Grubman spun her wheels.
Doing without voice-over narration, Kopple’s deft editing provides many quick, sometimes vivid portraits of an array of Hamptonites. There is, for example, Jacqueline Lipson, a twentysomething Manhattan attorney who looks upon the summer as a time to meet Mr. Right and goes about it with lawyerly sharkishness — handing out her number to many guys at many parties, cooing aggressively to one flustered date, ”Why aren’t you touching my legs?” Beneath her gleaming white smile, Lipson seems sadly desperate; it’s hard to believe she didn’t know she’d come off this way to the camera. Then again, if there’s one thing ”The Hamptons” is about, it’s self-delusion. Which brings us to Jason Binn, the tanned, tight-skinned young publisher of ”Hamptons” magazine (an ad-stuffed glossy designed solely to publish pix of the towns’ glitziest denizens), who I’d say clearly fancies himself a Jay Gatsby for the 21st century had he given any sign of having read something more than Tony Robbins self-improvement manuals.
There are nice surprises here and there. Kopple gives us a nuanced picture of Christie Brinkley, who throws herself with great gusto into a birthday party for her adorable daughter and displays equal energy protesting alleged water pollution from a nearby nuclear reactor. Another film might have turned Brinkley into a caricature: a knee-jerk liberal with pretty knees; Kopple instead implies Brinkley’s sincerity and enthusiasm. The true hero of ”The Hamptons,” however, proves to be Lieut. Ken Brown, a portly police officer who has spent 35 years pulling rich, drunken louts out of leafy hedges as well as helping the off-season community cope with small-town problems like getting locked out of one’s house. Brown’s retirement ceremony, in which this calm but firm man finds his lower lip trembling while he receives commendations from his colleagues, is elegantly moving.
Of course, for every heroically ordinary Lieutenant Brown there’s a colorful scamp like Steven Gaines, a local fixture whose calling card is the numerous books he’s written, including a history of the area, ”Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons” (1998). Gaines becomes Kopple’s guide to much of the moneyed crowd; he knows all the players but maintains a nice, ironic distance from the scene and is excessively attached — in a completely understandable way — to his adorable but sickly dog, Robbie.
Gaines is a flamboyant, unignorable figure, but Kopple, to her credit, also locates subtler character studies. The best is that of a Hamptons emergency-ambulance technician named Tracie Hotchner. We see her doing her high-pressure job, then learn that she’s not just any transplanted Californian — she cowrote the screenplay for ”Mommie Dearest”! She says people tell her all the time that she should write a movie about her new work, but, she says, ”it’s not something that’s particularly writable aboutable.” But the Hamptons, it turns out, are eminently filmable aboutable.