Considering that Barry Avrich’s book about his life in marketing and documentary movie-making presents itself as the story of “a kid from Montreal who has nothing extraordinary” yet “could have so many dreams come true,” it’s only reasonable to ask just what Avrich dreams about. The answer, it would seem, is fame, money, and power.
Now in his mid-50s, Avrich describes growing up in Montreal in thrall to people who had what he didn’t. But it was a particular kind of famous, rich, powerful person young Barry wished both to know and become: the show business mover and shaker, the one behind the spectacles that lit up our lives, the one who made the magic happen, and profited mightily as a result. Aware that he was not destined to be the guy people came to see, he set his sights on the guys who made people line up for a glimpse of the stars.
“I loved the limelight and sought it from an early age,” he writes at the book’s outset. “I wasn’t born into money but my stage presence and sense of humour were the cards I played to get access, to hang out with the in-crowd. I wanted to be with the people who had the power to change the world, learn their secrets and possibly enjoy their kind of lifestyle.”
There is something admirably direct in this ambition. Not only in the sense of identifying a clear goal and going for it, but in distinguishing between changing the world and enjoying the spoils of a particular lifestyle. An avid reader of the bottom-line showbiz bible Variety from age eight, Avrich grew up dreaming of becoming somebody whose numbers really added up.
This may seem a curious drive to anyone who prefers the “show” to the “business.” But for Avrich it seems to have amounted to nothing less than a calling, so by the time he arrived in Toronto from Montreal as a young man, he had his sights set on somehow getting into those places where the cash registers rang more loudly than the applause. If anything, Toronto only hardened young Avrich’s determination. Living the dream wasn’t going to be easy: “In Montreal, I was not the least self-conscious about living in a modest house in middle-class Cote Saint-Luc and driving my mother’s Pontiac. In Toronto, however, my tiny apartment and bicycle felt woefully inadequate. I always felt judged.” And you would, if your dreams tilted toward the material. Glory lay in those penthouses and spacious offices decorated with original works of art, where deals were made and profits piled up.
The first boost Avrich had in that direction was a telling one. As a student, he founded a business called Rent a Fan Club, which provided – for a price – fake mob scrums for publicity purposes. The business might have been, as Avrich allows, “a joke” designed for people seeking even the most fleeting and superficial taste of fame, but the outcome was no mere punch line. “My initial investment in Rent a Fan Club was about $250 for fake cameras and autograph books. In 1982, I sold the business to a New York promotion company, which was a division of a major ad agency, for $42,000.”
This is money – earned from the art of faking fame – speaking for itself, which is what money tends to do in Avrich’s book: it creates its own logic, writes its own narrative, generates its own cosmology of victory and failure, and ultimately serves as self-evident justification for why we find ourselves spending a lot of time in the otherwise dispiriting company of such colossally unpleasant people as Garth Drabinsky (subject of Avrich’s documentary, Show Stopper), Conrad Black, and Harvey Weinstein. They made money. A lot of it. Before they fell – a recurring but not remotely deterring development in Avrich’s assessment – they lived the dream.
The greatest leap required of this book’s reader is therefore to care as much about the attainment of Avrich’s big fat Rolodex as he does, because otherwise the story of his success – and who he knows and how much they’re worth – requires a rather strenuous effort of abstract projection.
Whether he is providing meticulous accounts of his big scores in marketing or his big “gets” as a documentarian, Avrich presumes a universality of values that casts returned calls from people with big desks as indications of destiny fulfilled, where it is in fact entirely reasonable to wonder what’s so dreamy about visiting the disgraced Drabinsky in the slammer or being called a “cunt” by the über-odious erstwhile Lord Black.
According to Avrich, no words spoken by his late father had quite the same lasting influence on his life than the instruction to “never blend in.” As far as the author is concerned, he has more than fulfilled that directive. And good for him. But if the pursuit of money, power, and fame strikes you as among the most banal and unremarkable of human pursuits, Moguls, Monsters and Madmen reads like a virtual textbook on blending in.