New CNBC series ‘Empires of New York’ dives into city’s most infamous financial crime stories of 1980s


CNBC’s new documentary “Empires of New York” is a riveting examination of the constellation of greed, power image, myth, celebrity and fame that became the driving forces of 80s white-collar culture in New York City.

Premiering Sunday night, the six-part series takes a chronological look at the emergence of the “greed is good” ideology that irrevocably changed a city newly flooded with money. What holds these tales together are five key movers-and-shakers in industries from real estate to politics, who each played a part in shaping this infamous decade.

As director Matthew Galkin highlighted in an interview with amNewYork Metro, there is a sixth thematic thread to the series: the city’s “rebirth” from the impoverished, dilapidated, garbage laden, crime infested metropolis of the 70s.

These initiatives were led by the ambitious then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, who made his career taking down mafia bosses such as John Gotti and eventually vaulted himself into Gracie Mansion as New York’s mayor.

This depth of consideration, rigorous research, skillful editing of pivotal TV moments, inclusion of real-time tabloid headlines and music to set that 80s vibe, when combined with the invaluable insights of first-hand testimonials, commentary from journalists, writers, intellectuals and artists—including Run DMC legend Darryl McDaniels and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore—who lived through this culture-shifting decade has succeeded in creating a documentary of rare depth and formidable significance.

Not only do we learn the details of the deeds and misdeeds of a morally questionable five, but of the ruthlessness of late-capitalism, the nature of the human spirit, morality, and the cultural shift from the traditional habits of the ultra-rich to the emergence of the nouveau rich, who wanted you to know, in precise term, the exorbitant level of their wealth and success—preferably on Page 6 .

Here are the essentials of some of the most infamous ’80s tyrants featured on “Empires of New York”:

Leona Helmsley (1920-2007)

Of the five figures featured in the “Empires of New York.” Leona Helmsley may be the least well known, and has never been a documentary subject before.

From humble Brooklyn-beginnings, Helmsley used her savvy to work her way up to vice president of a New York City real estate firm, becoming a millionaire in her own right.

Her wealth increased to an unimaginable level upon her marriage to billionaire Harry Helmsley in1972, whose real estate company owned The Empire State Building for a time.

But, it wasn’t long before the rumor mill started, with tabloid journalism—an essential medium for 80s scandal and gossip—awarding her the title “The Queen of Mean.” And for good reason.

According to staff accounts, if Leona found a spot of dust on a glass at her sprawling Connecticut mansion, or an unsuitably made bed at one of her hotels, she would publically berate or even fire employees on the spot.

Of such abusive incidents, Galkin said, “It’s like if you saw that scripted on television you would think ‘that’s a great line.’ But it’s true. You know, it’s a true line. So she really is just a character where fact is just greater than fiction.”

At a tax-evasion trial launched against Leona and Harry, a housekeeper gave testimony stating that she once heard Leona saying, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”

When Leona died in 2007, she included a $12 million dollar trust for her beloved Maltese, Trouble. A Manhattan judge later knocked down the figure to a to a paltry $2 million on the grounds that she was mentally unfit when she made her will.


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