By Owen Gleiberman
Updated May 05, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

I don’t know about you, but the moment I hear the word lobbyist, my brain glazes over. Casino Jack and the United States of Money woke my brain, and my outrage, right up. The latest documentary from Alex Gibney, who has set the gold standard for muckraking nonfiction in films like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the movie explores how Jack Abramoff, king of the Washington, D.C., lobbyists, built a system of cash for favors into a new-style government machine.

Casino Jack starts off as a fascinating portrait of the college-campus Republicans who came up in the 1980s — men like Abramoff and the clean-cut, fire-breathing Ralph Reed, who saw themselves as radicals out to remake America. And here’s the thing: They did. It was the glad-handing, backroom-savvy Abramoff, however, who crossed the line into illegality, inviting a series of eager dupes — Malaysian dictators, Native American casino operators — to funnel millions of dollars to him and his cronies in what was, in effect, a protection racket. In the end, Abramoff went to prison, but the ethos he created didn’t go away. Casino Jack is really a look at how the culture of Washington was rebuilt to sell itself to the highest bidder. A-

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