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Filmmaker Billy Corben On Why ‘God Forbid’ Is Like The Real-Life ‘Righteous Gemstones’

Did Donald Trump win a presidential election in 2016 because Jerry Falwell Jr. liked to watch a Miami pool boy have sex with his wife? This is the genuinely insane, and genuinely compelling question at the heart of God Forbid, a new Hulu documentary from Billy Corben (The U, Cocaine Cowboys, Screwball, 537 Votes).

Ostensibly it’s a movie about the scandal that brought down Jerry Falwell Jr., whose life is a Righteous Gemstones plot, as the head of Liberty University. But the hypotheticals are seemingly endless. As the head of his father’s flagship university, Falwell, who officially endorsed Trump for president, was wildly influential with evangelicals, who voted for Trump in record numbers. Michael Cohen, Trump’s attorney and fixer, knew that Falwell Jr. and his wife, Becki, were involved in a three-way relationship and real estate deal with Giancarlo Granda, who they’d met while Granda was working at the Fontainebleu Hotel pool in Miami. Cohen has claimed he used this knowledge (as well as photographic evidence) as leverage in Falwell’s Trump endorsement.

Beyond that, God Forbid is also about how, as Giancarlo Granda’s sister puts it, “you never want to be the least powerful person in a scandal.”

Since his scandal-plagued departure from Liberty, Falwell Jr. has “opened up,” or at least pretended to, claiming all that fire-and-brimstone culture war stuff he preached was more his father’s bag. Yet even in the midst of these supposed admissions, he still claims not to have known about Granda and his wife’s “affair,” calling it a “fatal attraction” situation.

Which puts Giancarlo, who is still co-owner of some Miami real estate with the Falwells, in a weird position — of being disparaged by a family he lied for for years, and of being known to the public as a “pool boy,” a job he had for one year when he was 20.

The direct and secondary consequences of things the Falwells have promoted are almost endless (Trump, Trumpism, the Dobbs decision), and yet the ripples, in this case, can be traced back to a sketchy Miami real estate deal and lawsuit. Which makes it a perfect subject for Corben, the documentarian laureate of South Florida. It was hard to talk about all the players in God Forbid without a cork wall and a roll of thread, but I did my best when I spoke to Corben recently.

So is there a siren that goes off in your office every time there’s a Miami Cuban involved in a scandal of some kind?

Since about 2018, since Aram Roston wrote that first Buzzfeed article about Jerry Falwell Jr. and the pool attendant — that he and his wife had met at the Fontainebleu, who less than a year later is a real estate millionaire in this $4.65 million dollar property eight blocks away from our office — we were obviously intrigued. No one really knew what the truth was back in 2018. So for two years before Giancarlo came forward, the blogosphere and the Twitterverse filled in those blanks with the most sensational salacious version — which was actually not far from the truth, as it turned out.

But we thought that this would definitely be an onion that would continue to peel over time, and we would obviously keep an eye on it. I had been to that liquor store, that was one of their three tenants. The Italian restaurant, which is still there, is extremely popular in South Beach. And the upstairs there was what Politico referred to as the “gay-friendly flophouse,” which was the hostel that Giancarlo was running over several years. At first, we thought we were dealing with a story of sexual hypocrisy and abuse of power, and another “only in Miami” butterfly effect kind of story, where a butterfly flaps its wings, and the course of history is changed, and we were excited about all of those prospects.

Then when January 6th happened, I think shit got dark, and when we started to hear this buzzword, “Christian nationalism.” All of a sudden it was everywhere, and we realized that we could tell that micro story about this bizarre coupled threesome, and how it may have impacted the last two presidential elections, but also, set it against the macro of this 50-year evangelical dynasty with this outsized influence on political power.

So in this case, the butterfly that flaps its wings is this poolboy f*cking Jerry Falwell Jr.’s wife, and then–

That is the butterfly, yes.

–and then, Michael Cohen, somehow. Was it through the lawsuit that he got access to the photographic evidence of the affair? And then, supposedly, that became his potential blackmail fuel, in order to make sure that the Falwells endorsed Trump in the election?

Four months after Giancarlo met “this cougar,” Becki Falwell, he’s getting an invite, from her, to fly to Lynchburg, Virginia, to Liberty University, to meet Donald Trump in September of 2012. Trump was coming to give a speech at the convocation. Giancarlo had been raised a conservative Republican, went to Catholic school, was a fan of Trump, The Apprentice, had read The Art of the Deal, and was very excited about the prospect of getting his book autographed, which he did. But he’s also in the green room, he’s on a private tour with Donald Trump and his entourage, which included his right-hand man, attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, who Giancarlo has very distinct memories of. Of his gaze, of him looking through him, and just looking sideways and wondering, “Who’s this guy?”

I don’t know if it was Giancarlo’s own guilt or whatever, or anxiety, but he thought that Michael Cohen had some idea that there was more than meets the eye here, and he was right. So Michael Cohen was aware that this man could be of some use to the boss, and so he maintained a relationship with Jerry, knowing full well that somewhere down the line this relationship would be of some use. And he was right. In 2014, this real estate transaction that the Falwells had gotten into with Giancarlo leads to this litigation. A friend of Giancarlo’s, who he had been brought in to help them locate a property, who received a real estate commission for his help, was now claiming that he was owed more.

He wanted an equity stake?

Yes. He claimed he was entitled to 50% of Giancarlo’s end.

I read that Vanity Fair piece that Gabe Sherman wrote about the Falwells, which I thought was interesting. That was the most I’d heard about Jerry Jr. at the time. But it was all about the Falwell’s perspective on this story. Was this movie your attempt to tell Giancarlo’s end of this?

Well, Giancarlo had come to us well before that. In fact, Jerry told Megan K. Stack that the reason why they were doing the publicity at the time was to attempt to kill — his word — the book and the documentary. Because I think when Gabe Sherman reached out to Giancarlo to try to get comment, Giancarlo said, “I’m writing a book and participating in this documentary, so that’ll be my side.” So that’s how the Falwells, I think, became aware of the book and the documentary.

Is that annoying to you, as a documentarian, that it seems like the way things work now is that you get access to Giancarlo, and therefore, the Falwells don’t talk to you, and then the guy doing the Falwell profile, the Falwells talk to him, and then Giancarlo won’t talk to him? It feels like there’s this thing now where you have subjects that will see a project as their side of the story, and thus, they won’t speak to other people.

Obviously, ideally, you have all sides, you’re creating the most objective piece of history. I think what we’ve also learned from recent history, however, is that both sidesism can be toxic to journalism. And there’s a couple of things to say about it, and the first thing to say about it is that we put Giancarlo through the ringer. This wasn’t about taking Giancarlo’s word for it or telling his side of the story. From the moment he first reached out to basically two years later, all throughout, we were constantly demanding corroboration, receiving copious amounts of text messages, only a tiny fraction of which feature in the doc. Emails, photographs, videos. We work to corroborate, to ensure that the material that does wind up in the story is as accurate as we can. A lot of stuff that may be true, or that we may believe, doesn’t make the cut. Sometimes for time, but sometimes simply because we can’t corroborate. And the attorneys are like, “This just doesn’t pass muster.” And rest assured, lawyers were ever present, if not physically in the editing room, certainly spiritually in the editing room.

So when the story came out, the Falwells’ attempt to deny the story was to say that this was just an affair, and a “fatal attraction” situation, between Becki and Giancarlo. Why do you think it was so important for Jerry Falwell Jr. to deny the fact that he was a swinger? From a non-religious, whatever perspective, the idea that he likes to watch a young dude have sex with his wife is one of the least distasteful things about him.

It’s arguably almost likable. Because at least there’s humanity there, there’s fetishes. It’s not my fetish. And that’s the important thing about this doc, too, is that this is not to kink-shame anyone, because honestly, as a Miamian, we love it down here. Live your best life. Avail yourself of our amenities, our nightclub, our hotels, our pool attendants, have consensual sex with adults.

Obviously, the rub here is who they are, and this holier-than-thou hypocrisy. That’s what makes it distasteful. The fetish, in and of itself, shows some humanity. But you can’t go to Liberty University as the leader, and exploit Christians and Christianity for power and profit from the pulpit, and then punish those students and faculty for engaging in drinking, in premarital sex, in cohabitation, in cursing, in dancing, when you’re doing all of those things. Are you Christians or are the Ten Commandments just your bucket list? And that’s certainly how they treated them down here.

Are you able to see the sort of Shakespearean tragedy of Jerry Falwell Jr., or has he done too much harm to be sympathetic? Because it seems… his luxurious lifestyle has locked him into this culture warrior position, in some ways. He was born into it.

I’m a storyteller. I think he’s an incredibly, profoundly compelling figure, and a complicated figure, and a conflicted figure, and it’s convenient now for him to cast himself as like, “Well, I was never very religious. That was my brother and my dad and my mom, especially.” That’s very convenient.

So basically, that’s what he’s confessing to having done, to have enjoyed the trappings of being a part of this dynasty, but yet not really believed in any of this bullshit. Come on, dude. But that cynicism, and that thirst for power and control defined his family. His father was not pro-life, his father was pro-power. And now Jerry Jr. is like, “I’m going to be candid.” Come on. Convenient.

One of the most interesting parts of the movie to me was when Giancarlo was talking about that it fell apart because he couldn’t live with the level of lying that was of part of the Falwells’ lifestyle. To have this public persona which was basically a total lie and then their private lives would be something completely different. That was not something that he was capable of doing, and that was part of how they split apart.

He was capable of doing it, in fact, and, I think, he said, “I started to hate myself. I started to hate who I was becoming,” because he was doing it, and the way he tells it, it was eating him alive. He did it, he lied, and he lived that double life, and he lied for them. He lied to people about them, and he, ultimately, felt pretty shitty about it. He’s had a lot of conflicting feelings. He, by his own description, is a pretty simple dude. Comes from this working class family, in Westchester, this very popular suburb, here in mainland Miami-Dade, and this is a guy, that pre-2018 Buzzfeed story, if you Googled his name, you get three hits. His Twitter, his Insta, his LinkedIn. That’s it. Simple, private dude, and after that, you got hundreds of thousands of “pool boy” hits, and this ruined his life, ruined his name, ruined what he thought were any kind of future prospects, either romantically, or economically.

He just thought the second you Google me, I’m just like, “I’m fucking toxic.” And that ate at him for two years, along with him being trapped in this, which he still is, this real estate venture. All the while being teased with the prospect of a buyout, from either the Falwells, or an outside buyer, being promised this $600,000 net, which is all the kid really wanted, was like to be able to walk away from this, after taxes, and attorneys’ fees, with 600 grand, to continue his real estate venture. He wanted to start the rest of his life, separate from the Falwells. He had a series of two or three failed relationships with women his own age, which he, at least in hindsight or at the time, blamed on the dysfunctionality of this coupled threesome/business relationship he had with the Falwells. And the liar he had to be in order to maintain that and protect these women from that. So he just got to wit’s end.

So when it comes out that [he’s the pool boy in this Falwell saga], the Falwells didn’t initially put that out, right? That was a byproduct of Giancarlo’s shady friend suing?

That’s right. So this litigation in Miami-Dade over this real estate dispute, was that the Falwells meet this kid while he is working as a pool attendant at the Fontainebleu, and then they get into this real estate thing, and he reaches out to me for help, and I help them. And I understand that there’s more to this relationship than just the business partnership, and there’s something romantic going on. And, by the way, not in the complaint itself, but offline lawyer to lawyer, they go, “We have photos to prove what we’re insinuating in this complaint,” in order to incentivize Jerry to settle this matter and to write a check.

And Giancarlo freaked the fuck out. His sister likens it to the Lewinsky situation. She’s like, “You don’t want to be the least powerful person in a scandal.”

This power disparity — you mentioned it yourself, the “fatal attraction” story, that was the Clinton playbook. What the Falwells tried to do a little late in the game to Giancarlo, was brand him a stalker. He was obsessed, he was a blackmailer, an extortionist, a fatal attraction, this and that. That’s exactly what Hillary Clinton said about Monica Lewinsky. And so not only does it ruin the reputation of these young people, but they also get branded for life as the job they held for one year in their young adult life. Monica Lewinsky is “the intern,” and Giancarlo Granda is “the pool boy.” And that can be incredibly demoralizing.

So before Falwells endorsed Trump, wasn’t Ted Cruz was sort of the evangelical candidate of choice? Was there any inkling of why Jerry Falwell didn’t like Ted Cruz, that made him inclined towards Donald Trump from the beginning?

Ask Al Franken, everybody hates Ted Cruz. Most of all his Republican colleagues. But this is why the Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsement was such a shock. Not simply because he was endorsing this twice-divorced playboy from New York City, with five children from three different women, it wasn’t just that — and a Democrat, no less — an abortionist. It was also because Ted Cruz was in this primary, and Ted Cruz was literally the evangelical candidate. His father is a pastor. He chose Liberty University, introduced by Jerry Falwell Jr., to announce his presidential campaign. He thought he had that in the bag. Rick Tyler, who was on his campaign and helped set up that event at Liberty and was in touch with Jerry Jr., we interviewed him, it didn’t make the cut, but he said he absolutely thought that the Jerry Jr. endorsement was in the bag. That Cruz was going to garner a precious evangelical voting block that had helped elect every Republican president since Reagan, and as it turned out, turned out in record numbers, upwards of 80%, for Donald Trump, more so than any previous Republican presidential winner.

Jerry Jr. liked Donald Trump. I think Giancarlo makes it clear, Jerry was always going to endorse Trump, no matter what Cruz and his campaign believed. He didn’t like Ted Cruz. He really liked Donald Trump. He wanted to be Donald Trump when he grew up just like Giancarlo did. He wanted to be a billionaire real estate playboy. That’s how he conducted himself in most of his life. There was a quote from a student, a Liberty student, in a political article a couple years ago saying, “We are not a university, we are a real estate hedge fund for Jerry Falwell, Jr.”

And that’s a not unfair assessment of the business model of that school.

So Donald Trump — evangelicals, turns out, they love him, even though he was obviously not practicing what they preach. Jerry Falwell Jr., they loved him, even though he had this whole secret private life. Is it one of the things that we don’t understand as non-evangelicals? Do we misunderstand hypocrisy as a flaw when it’s actually a thing that they like? To have this sort of public persona and private life that’s completely different?

I think it’s a really fair question. I don’t know the answer to it. I will tell you that most of the people we interviewed in this documentary are Christians. Most of them are evangelicals. One of them, Randal Baumer, is an evangelical pastor. I think he’s a second-generation or third-generation, in fact. And these people seem to think that that is not Christianity, and that is a perversion of Christianity. Not unique to evangelicals, by any stretch of the imagination, but not consistent with what they as Christians believe their values to be. And if it has through the years somehow been baked in, it doesn’t belong there, and it’s a cancer on their faith.

‘God Forbid’ is available now, only on Hulu. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.