How’s this for a documentary premise? Billionaire DHL founder Larry Hillblom goes missing while piloting a plane to a remote Asian island. When news of his likely death spreads, a number of Asian prostitutes surface, claiming to have children by him and thus demanding a piece of his estate. The eccentric Hillblom preferred life in Saipan, an island in Micronesia, for not just its tax benefits but also for the remote lifestyle. The founder of a corporation that altered the package delivery system, Hillblom usually wore tee-shirts and jeans, even to business meetings. He had the funds to purchase a class-A jet of choice, yet he chose to fly small “classic” airplanes, which even his best friends refused to step into. A bachelor with a penchant for underage sex workers, Hillblom puddle-jumped all around Asia to sate his tastes.
Thus, the conflict of this suspenseful nonfiction pieces takes shape, as the women coming forward have a reasonable claim. The first woman to claim paternity acquires lawyer David Lujan, who fuels a long-running battle against the massive Hillblom estate. The opposition scrambles to protect the fortune, a billion of which is promised to the University of California (Hillblom’s alma mater) for medical research – as we’d expect, the institution allegedly acts like a ghost-opponent to the women overseas. To describe Lujan as a wise warrior would be fitting, since he knows when to deliberate and when to attack. But the man’s really like a shark born with an acute sense of reason. In talking head interviews, he reflects on his vow to justly win the case for the mothers, and his conviction is so unfaltering that we wonder if Hillblom’s cronies had any chance.
But “Shadow Billionaire” sports many twists and turns, with the intrigue and insight of top-tier journalism. The film unveils the seamy details of Filipino youth prostitution, which exploits the lower class and reminds us that such a loathsome practice in Asia isn’t limited to the usual offender, Thailand. Along with Lujan’s commentary, journalist Peter Manso appears throughout as a valuable talking head. His reflections shape the events into thoughtful reportage, which director Alexis Spraic wisely maximizes to inspire her low-rent but clean approach. At the start, Manso notes the tabloid newsworthiness of the case, in that it has all “three C’s” – cash, corruption, and…well, women don’t appreciate the word that the third “C” represents, but, disturbingly enough, it reflects Hillblom’s sleazy tastes, from which the whole ordeal blossomed.
Yet Hillblom is still intriguing, having made a number of friends who understand his duality. His story keeps you hanging on until a conclusion worthy of the dramatic build-up.