“Shadow Billionaire” – 2009 Tribeca Film Festival Review

Alexis Manya Spraic’s debut film looks back at the surreal life of Larry Hillblom, the founder and ‘H’ in shipping company DHL who disappeared in a 1995 plane crash. At the time, the eccentric American was living in tax-free haven Saipan. It was here that the law school graduate’s name became entangled in a legal battle involving paternity tests, his sordid lifestyle and his shoddily written will – with his staggeringly lucrative estate at stake. Buoyed by first-person accounts and historical footage, “Shadow Billionaire” admirably tackles Hillblom’s story but doesn’t quite succeed in its execution.

The deciphering of his strange timeline as well as the very colorful characters involved in the court case following his disappearance—particularly Guam lawyer David Lujan, who represented one of the children seeking a cut of Hillblom’s pie—are nearly worth the documentary alone. However, these elements are presented in as chaotic a manner as the case itself.

The film cannot figure out which angle to take. At times, it is a portrait of a law student whose unusual side job becomes his business. At others, it is a hazy postcard-like view of life in the Pacific Islands. At one point, the documentary becomes a superficial commentary on the seedy bars and nightclubs that Hillblom frequented in Asia, resulting in the four heirs who eventually succeed in gaining their inheritance. The most intriguing angle is the fascinating court case itself, particularly with Lujan’s role in bringing global attention to the story. Unfortunately, extraneous details and a loosely-structured narrative bog down the documentary; one would be better off following the case-closed story through numerous media accounts that include even more details that the film did not have time to touch.

“Shadow Billionaire” screens at the Tribeca Film Festival on May 3.