Assholes in documentaries for the win
February 4, 2009 5:07 PM   Subscribe

The greatest a-holes to ever strut in front of a documentary film maker's camera?

I recently watched two great documentaries - Overnight and The King of Kong, both made awesome by the utter lack of self awareness of their subjects (Troy Duffy and Billy Mitchell) and the pure preening, arrogant asshole behaviour which repulsed and amused me in equal measure. What documentary films capture - without acting or other shenanigans - real self-important, cringeworthy assholes baring themselves on screen? If they face a downfall, great. If they get their comeuppance, even better.
posted by fire&wings to Media & Arts (70 answers total) 79 users marked this as a favorite
Some people think Michael Moore is a "self-important, cringeworthy asshole." He's in a lot of documentaries.
posted by Xalf at 5:09 PM on February 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

In the new doc "American Teen" one of the girls is the typical high school bitch/bully - pretty fun little doc too. Although I can't think of anything close to "overnight" at the moment.
posted by mattsweaters at 5:11 PM on February 4, 2009

Adolf Hitler in "Triumph of the Will"
posted by Kirklander at 5:15 PM on February 4, 2009 [7 favorites]

Mick Jagger in Gimmie Shelter.
posted by fixedgear at 5:18 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 'Asshole' is kinda in the eyes of the beholder, but here goes:

Richard Nixon in Emile de Antonio's Milhouse
Metallica in Some Kind of Monster
Almost everybody in The Decline of Western Civilization, Pt. II. A lot of pop musicians in a lot of pop-music docs, frankly.
Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man
Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine
posted by box at 5:20 PM on February 4, 2009

Best answer: The guy from WASP in "The decline and fall of western civilization: the metal years," the guy who spent most of his on-screen time in the swimming pool, saying awful things about his mother with her standing right there.
posted by jbickers at 5:21 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

The guy in "American Movie" is both assholish/charming.

"The Thin Blue Line" has a lot of asshole prosecutors/cops. "Mr. Death," also by Errol Morris, is all about a raging huge asshole/Holocaust denier.
posted by billysumday at 5:22 PM on February 4, 2009

While we're mentioning Morris subjects, plenty of people think Robert 'Fog of War' McNamara is an asshole.
posted by box at 5:23 PM on February 4, 2009

Best answer: I cannot recall the specific people, but there are several who fit your criteria in Born Rich.
posted by Andy's Gross Wart at 5:24 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: LA Police Chief Daryl Gates. In Nick Broomfield's Heidi Fliess Hollywood Madam, Broomfield interviews Gates in a motel room. Gates was paid for the interview, in cash. Broomfield put the money on top of a dresser. Not knowing the camera was on, Gates asked if that was the money for the interview and when Broomfield said yes, Gates scooped it up in the most greedy manner possible. Needless to say, it totally discredited gates.

Frankly, everyone in that documentary was a total asshole, including Broomfield. A total classic and one of my all time favorites. I can't recommend it strongly enough. Basically it is a bizzare triangle between Fliess and an old producer and some other woman. All three just rip on each other during the film in the most fascinating manner possible.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:24 PM on February 4, 2009

Best answer: Agreed about Troy Duffy. What a dick that guy was.

I'd also recommend the Nic Broomfield docs Aileen: Portrait of a Serial Killer (about Aileen Wournos) & His Big White Self (about Eugene Terre Blache)
posted by dydecker at 5:26 PM on February 4, 2009

Best answer: Alex Popov in Up for Grabs.
posted by nitsuj at 5:26 PM on February 4, 2009

This film Crazy Love also comes to mind
posted by dydecker at 5:31 PM on February 4, 2009

Best answer: I came in to say Overnight but since you've seen it, check out Flyerman. Terrific film about a guy who's 100 percent human and 50 percent asshole.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 5:33 PM on February 4, 2009

Noeline and Laurie in Sylvania Waters.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:34 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

'Asshole' is kinda in the eyes of the beholder, but here goes:
Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine

Indeed yes! Because to my mind, a case could just as well be made for Michael Moore himself.

It does raise the question of how to calibrate AHery. I mean to say, the Wives of Orange County and the Wives of New York could fall into this category, but does the sheer patheticness override the pomposity? Does the subject have to do actual harm to others or can mere self centered arrogance fit the bill?
posted by IndigoJones at 5:35 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Moore himself? Oh, yeah.

And speaking of Nick Broomfield--I've only seen about three or four or 'em, but would it be a stretch to say that anybody who appears onscreen in his documentaries is at least a little bit of an asshole?
posted by box at 5:41 PM on February 4, 2009

Best answer: Billy Mitchell was robbed.

After the documentary, I felt the same way about him you did. Then I watched the DVD extras. In one of them, Mitchell made a self-effacing joke, and seemed genuinely funny, warm, and wholly human, all things that the Mitchell portrayed in the documentary had seemed incapable of, which got me wondering. Then I looked up the above, and learned how grossly what actually happened was distorted to generate a narrative arc featuring a good guy and a bad guy.

I don't know if I'd like Mitchell, but I do believe now that I'd find something different from the cartoonish buffoon presented in the film.
posted by Zed at 5:45 PM on February 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

A documentary that captures the backstage/behind-the-scenes "bitchiness" of a musical superstar -- Elton John: Tantrums & Tiaras (filmed by his partner/husband David Furnish).
posted by ericb at 5:47 PM on February 4, 2009

Best answer: Regarding Nic Broomfield's movies about Aileen Wuornos (which dydecker mentioned above): I was going to mention them too, but (I'm guessing) for a different reason. I'm guessing dydecker was talking about Wuornos herself (apologies if I've misconstrued).

I guess you could say Wuornos was an "asshole", but really she was insane, and (were she sane) "asshole" would be a mild way to describe her. Plus, there's nothing "amusing" about her. Finally, she came off as very defensive throughout much or even most of it, so I don't think she really fits "utter lack of self awareness".

However, there's another person in these movies who, in my opinion, fits the described characteristics to a tee: Wuornos's lawyer. The man is amazing, in the described fashion.

The movies, incidentally, are Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer.
posted by Flunkie at 5:48 PM on February 4, 2009

The Smartest Guys In The Room:
aka biggest assholes on the planet.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:48 PM on February 4, 2009 [6 favorites]

I came in to say Born Rich, but Andy's Wart beat me to it. (ew.)
posted by kuujjuarapik at 5:49 PM on February 4, 2009

Maybe a stretch, but Werner Herzog's My Best Fiend, a documentary about his relationship with... unique personality... Klaus Kinski.
posted by xmutex at 5:49 PM on February 4, 2009

An ex of mine used to get huge kicks watching "My Super Sweet Sixteen" on... MTV, I think? If you like rich teenagers acting like spoiled brats in front of the camera, then you're in for a treat. It makes me grab for the nearest sharp object, personally. I realize it's more of a reality show, but you could easily argue it's a form of "oral history"... right?
posted by backseatpilot at 5:49 PM on February 4, 2009

Best answer: One of the most chilling examples of a buffoon caught in his asshattery is convicted murderer Michael Peterson who, over the course of filming an intensely personal documentary, attempts to convince the French documentary-makers -- and his anticipated audiences -- that he is an aggrieved, innocent widower.

The six-hour documentary, Soupçons, is fascinating, as we watch Peterson devolve from a confident showman surrounded by his legal team to an extremely anxious defendant who begins to see his carefully-constructed world crashing around him.
posted by terranova at 6:02 PM on February 4, 2009

Billy Mitchell was robbed.

Not to derail too much, but unless they CGIed Billy Mitchell saying some of the things he said in the film, I'm inclined to believe that he really is a self-absorbed world class prick. Yeah, they edited the whole lunch scene to make him look like a bigger asshole (making it look like he didn't show up when he actually did, making it look like Wiebe was an unwelcome gate-crasher when he wasn't), and they made it look like Wiebe was more of an outsider than he really was, but still.

The scene where he explains the cheap patriotic ties? Telling the old lady couriering his dodgy videotape that she can "lose [her] life, but not the tape"? The scene where he opens the fortune cookie that says "you strive for perfection in all that you do", and he smugly says "oh, this must have been written for me."? "Some people you don't wanna spend too much time talking to" (and his "explanation", and his whole tone, in that Onion AV article doesn't make him seem like any less of a prick)? Again, unless that's somehow not really him saying that stuff and acting that way, I don't think it's accurate to say he was "unfairly portrayed".

Now, maybe he was playing to the camera and he didn't know how far they'd go with it and he's not really like that in real life, but there's no evidence of that. Every interview of him I've read, he has the same conceited, self-absorbed, condescending tone. He's a prick.
posted by DecemberBoy at 6:16 PM on February 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

I would tell you exactly what I think of John, one of the three rich kids from the Seven-Up documentary series, but given he's a QC and could easily sue my arse off if I slandered him on the internet, I think I won't. But I think you could probably guess what I think of him.
posted by Effigy2000 at 6:18 PM on February 4, 2009

Check out Louis Theroux's stuff (google video has a lot)... His bread and butter is giving crazy self important people a enough rope to hang themselves with.
posted by magikker at 6:22 PM on February 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Lars Fucking Von Trier in The Five Obstructions. Which is a really interesting documentary that I loved, but if I had any doubts from Lars' movies that he's sort of an asshole, this did nothing to dispel them. An asshole with a sense of humor about himself, at least, I guess.

One could maybe make a case for Stevie by Steve James, as well. Part of the point of the movie is to question whether Stevie really is a completely irredeemable person, but you could definitely make a case, and a good one, that Stevie and a good fraction of his relatives are completely awful.

But above all, Fred Leuchter in Errol Morris' Mr. Death. I won't go into much detail as part of the fascination of the film is in how the viewer's perception of him changes over the course of the movie. But I think this is probably exactly what you're looking for. If not, hey, at least you'll have discovered the awesomeness that is Errol Morris if you don't already know.
posted by Stacey at 6:24 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: He's not an asshole.

But if you want non-self-aware and preening, you will not find a better example than:

Troy Hurtubise in Project Grizzly. It is magnificent.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:24 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not to derail You Should See the Other Guy too much, but I used to live in the same building as FlyerMan (the condo he's buying at the end of the film is in 'The Merchandise Building' in Toronto), and have seen 'his' documentary. The guy was pretty wacked in real life, the documentary is quite sympathetic. He was chasing his dream I guess.
posted by lowlife at 6:28 PM on February 4, 2009

Anton Newcombe in DiG! At a gig in which he proclaims: "I'm not for sale, I'm fucking LOVE. I give it away" he later then goes on to kick a guy in the head.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:43 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by mattholomew at 6:45 PM on February 4, 2009

Lars von Trier is mighty assholish in The Five Obstructions -- but that's the point.
posted by hermitosis at 6:58 PM on February 4, 2009

Not a documentary, but Tool Academy. Pure asshole.
posted by grippycat at 7:01 PM on February 4, 2009

Dig. That guy is such a prick.

Madonna in Truth Or Dare. Almost everyone except the kids on trial at in Paradise Lost. And in a weird, almost sweet way, R. Crumb in Crumb.
posted by Rykey at 7:03 PM on February 4, 2009

Omigod, I totally have to second My Super Sweet Sixteen. Some of it is likely available on the MTV site, and a dvd set of the first two seasons is out there for little cash.

Bitches are the most terrible people you have ever seen. Histrionics over ridiculous details of the mid six figure extravaganza their parents are throwing them. Major drama over who to invite, etc.

They recently did a followup series with some of the worst called Exiled. They dumped them with teenage girsl in 3rd world countries. They through hissy fits, but quickly learned valuable lessons.

On a more highbrow note, as mentioned, John from the Seven Up series.
posted by yellowbinder at 7:09 PM on February 4, 2009

3rding Anton Newcombe in Dig! Total douche.
posted by fructose at 7:21 PM on February 4, 2009

Preening, arrogant, repulsive, self-important, cringeworthy - it's all of it. But not quite a "documentary" in the traditional sense.
posted by milkrate at 7:23 PM on February 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

There is a movie called "Comedian," about Jerry Seinfeld and a struggling comedian named Orney Adams. It's a fantastic movie for people who want to believe in justice, because both have exactly the success they deserve as stand-ups.

3rding Anton Newcombe in Dig! Total douche.
Fourthing. And his music is hideous too.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:27 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would tell you exactly what I think of John, one of the three rich kids from the Seven-Up documentary series,

No he can't sue you for expressing an opinion. Is he the one with the weird hair who says "bulgaria" a whole lot? I actually thought he came out alright in the end, by the time they get into their 40s. Moreso anyway than the little cockney jockey dude who starts going off about how non-whites should stay out of the East End.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:29 PM on February 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Louds, precursor to Real World and Big Brother, and hilariously parodied in Albert Brooks' mock-umentary Real Life.

Seconding Madonna in Truth or Dare.
posted by marsha56 at 7:32 PM on February 4, 2009

If you liked King of Kong, you really should see Chasing Ghosts. I think Billy gets treated more fairly in that one: still an asshole, but by no means the biggest asshole in the room.
posted by arco at 7:33 PM on February 4, 2009

The Man Who Bought Mustique. I have never seen anyone quite so arrogant.
posted by fings at 7:48 PM on February 4, 2009

Best answer: Troy Hurtubise in Project Grizzly. It is magnificent.

He shaves with a fucking BOWIE KNIFE!!

Seriously, if you have not seen Project Grizzly, seek it out, you will not regret it. One review described it as "the best inadvertent comedy ever filmed".
posted by biscotti at 8:07 PM on February 4, 2009

Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine

At that time, Heston was suffering the early stage effects of Alzheimer's, which eventually killed him.

A lot of people think that it wasn't fair at all for Moore to blindside Heston in that way, because Moore knew that Heston was sick. (Heston publicly announced it in August of 2002, but it was common knowledge long before that.)

So Heston's behavior in that film is a good demonstration that Moore was an asshole, because he was deliberately baiting a very sick man.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:16 PM on February 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

anything with Jonathan King in it.
posted by scruss at 8:22 PM on February 4, 2009

C'est arrivé près de chez vous aka Man Bites Dog. Yet it's a fictional documentary. Benoit is a jerk.
posted by ezekieldas at 8:40 PM on February 4, 2009

George Wallace in Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls. He tries to redeem himself by trotting out his black personal assistant. The performance is not convincing.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:58 PM on February 4, 2009

Guys and Dolls (link to the complete film) is about Real Dolls and their owners. It features four different cases. Two of them are kind of sad, one is very creepy, and the fourth one, a guy named Mike, is an absolute asshole.

More about this documentary in the blue.
posted by clearlydemon at 10:14 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Stephen Ambrose and Dayton Duncan in Ken Burn's Lewis and Clark.
posted by LarryC at 11:08 PM on February 4, 2009

Bob Fischer in Original Schtick.
posted by nudar at 2:12 AM on February 5, 2009

Wynton Marsalis in Ken Burns' Jazz.
posted by box at 4:59 AM on February 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

the dancing outlaw
posted by stubby phillips at 6:05 AM on February 5, 2009

Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.--a.k.a. Mr. Death--execution "specialist" whose hubris and need for attention got him caught up in the Holocaust denial industry.

The documentary is chilling....a narcissistic asshole who ends up deluding himself that he's "proved" there were no execution gas chambers at the Nazi death camps.
posted by availablelight at 6:42 AM on February 5, 2009

Al Gore (in An inconvienient Truth, obvously) is the without a doubt the most arrogant, self-centered a-hole in any documentary I have seen recently.

He obviously doesn't get his comeuppance in that documentary (seeing as he did it to stroke his own ego) but follow it up with The Great Global Warming Swindle which swats down every point that he makes.
posted by thekiltedwonder at 7:15 AM on February 5, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, way more than I expected here! Great stuff.
posted by fire&wings at 10:45 AM on February 5, 2009

Also not a documentary, but Kenny in Spenny Vs Kenny (Canadian reality tv show) is an asshole. A pretty funny one though.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 7:48 AM on February 6, 2009

just for the record - the girl mattsweaters speaks of in American Teen goes to school with me.
She is not faking it one. bit.
It's a very good little piece of filmmaking, to boot.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 9:50 AM on February 6, 2009

Winton Marsalis? Really?

I'll 5th or 6th Anton Newcombe in Dig!, along with every other person in that movie. My favorite line in that movie was the singer from the Dandy Warhols saying that he "sneezes out hits". Gold.
posted by skechada at 12:52 PM on February 6, 2009

Late to this thread, but the first person who came to my mind when I read this question is Kenzo Okuzaki in The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (Yuki Yukite Shingun). Here's a good English language review at Midnight Eye. Okuzaki might not exactly be an asshole per se, because there's a legitimate reason (in his mind) behind his actions, but he's definitely self-absorbed and very cringeworthy. "Repulsed and amused" by the subject really fits the bill here. It's an excellent documentary, though, and although it's been a while since I saw it last, it still counts as one of the best movies I've ever seen.
posted by misozaki at 3:01 AM on February 7, 2009

If you can find it, I, Curmudgeon, Alan Zweig's personal documentary about being a grump and a jerk, with testimonials from fellow curmudgeons. Those are people who know they're assholes, though.
posted by sillygwailo at 9:41 PM on February 16, 2009

A Complete History Of My Sexual Failures -- most of the the exes that Chris Waitt interviews have absolutely no doubt about his being an asshole.
posted by waraw at 12:55 PM on March 2, 2009

Capturing the Friedmans.... only you aren't quite sure who the asshole is. Definitely somebody's an asshole.

And really, nobody's mentioned Pumping Iron???

Assholes in terms of "Okay, what is wrong with you, are you mental? Yes, yes, you are obviously mental. But also kind of an asshole, sorry, buddy": Crumb, The Devil and Daniel Johnston... there are other movies I could name about messed up people, like Grey Gardens, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye but those are more about trainwrecks than unaccountable, arrogant SOBs. Daniel Johnston and Robert Crumb ya kinda have to love and hate.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:51 AM on March 3, 2009

Rockets Redglare is beyond conceited, though everyone seemed to love him.

I once had a coworker (Kirby) who like, biked 10 kilometers to work everyday, went for walks with his pregnant wife, and traveled to different cities for marathons and stuff like that. I also heard he threw footballs around for fun. Rockets Redglare, bragging about uber-blowjobs whilst smoking on a bed he is physically incapable of leaving, is the anti-Kirby.
posted by sleslie at 8:36 PM on May 31, 2009

Capturing the Friedmans.... only you aren't quite sure who the asshole is. Definitely somebody's an asshole.

That summarizes the movie's uneasiness perfectly.
posted by jscott at 10:39 AM on July 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, while I'm here (I was checking referrers and found this AskMeFI that linked to my King of Kong criticism), I think I'll address the Billy Mitchell Asshole Thing.

I have a number of problems with many aspects of King of Kong, mostly about accuracy and misrepresenting events/timelines/situations. But let me be clear: Billy Mitchell is, by the words of many, capable of being a very abrasive, very in-your-face personality. He says things which might not be out of place from a defending champion boxer or wrestler, which, coupled with the facts of it being videogame competition at the core, probably comes off as fairly assholish/strange/pathetic to people being introduced to it in the highly-edited form in the movie.

My issues with the movie around Mitchell is that it does a fairly intense job of portraying him as a cheat/liar utilizing connections to keep out pretenders to his throne. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, who knows Mitchell has ever indicated as such. His videogame competing is fair and he has not tried to cheat others out of anything. The movie implies otherwise. Strongly.

His personality/persona, however, might accurately be called by some people as "asshole". So, I've been informed on many occasions, does mine.

It's a nuance, but nuances make the difference in documentary. At least, I like to think so.
posted by jscott at 10:59 AM on July 8, 2009

I'll give qualified nominations to Robert Crumb's brothers, Charles and Maxon, in Crumb. Both of them are excruciating to watch, but the documentary makes clear that their dysfunctional family upbringing has left all of them pretty disturbed. Sadly, Charles took his own life before the documentary was released.

nthing Fred A. Leuchter. I saw Mr Death when it first came out, and still think about it to this day.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 10:02 PM on July 12, 2009

Jumping in late here. Michel Rolland, the consultant in Mondovino, who recommends that everyone "micro-oxygenate."
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:23 AM on July 20, 2009

Let me add the German officials in One Day in September. They seemed to have the attitude of, "Let's put down our wurst und bier, and go negotiate with the terrorists."
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:19 PM on July 27, 2009

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