Some documentaries are made from a genuine, uncompromised interest in their subject, driven by a documentarian’s fascination with a story and with the complicated nature of the people involved. For the life of me, there is no way I could ever believe that about Maddman: The Steve Madden Story. This is a documentary cobbled together for one reason only: to kiss the ass of Steve Madden in the most public relations friendly way possible. There are hints at an interesting story here, but the appropriately monikered Maddman Productions seems wholly uninterested in exploring them.
For those unfamiliar with the name Steve Madden, he is the founder of an eponymous company that specializes in affordable fashion shoes, and you probably would best recognize his company as the one that ran a very recognizable ad campaign in the nineties involving paper cutouts of models with disproportionately large heads and feet. The other reason to know Steve Madden’s name is through his association with infamous Wall Street con artist Jordan Belfort, whose efforts were a primary reason why Steve Madden’s company skyrocketed in stock price in its earliest days going public.
Maddman isn’t shy about this aspect of Madden’s past, going to far as to use clips of its dramatization in Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, but rather than paint Madden as a culpable party upon which justice has been served, director Ben Patterson instead sweeps the morality of Madden’s involvement under the rug. At best, Madden was an unwitting associate to Belfort’s schemes who should have known better, and at worst he was a willful accomplice who used Belfort’s machinations to build his company through fraudulent means. We never see Madden admit any fault, nor do we really see him grow as a person from the experience. We are instead treated to a highlight reel of successes throughout Madden’s life, including those from while he was still in prison as if that is an accomplishment to be lauded.
If any of the interviewees has anything bad to say about Madden, those statements have been discretely edited out of the film, leaving only the hollow portrait of a man who loves making shoes and is entering the latter years of his life while raising kids and continuing his work in design. It’s telling that the film’s final frames choose to list his company’s recent accomplishments, even as it repeatedly reminds us that Madden is no longer in corporate control of the company. This is a PR stunt meant to gloss over the problems with a company’s problematic frontman in the hopes that a willing public and the investors therein will see this and rest easy. As a piece of documentary filmmaking, though, Maddman is a milquetoast examination of a life, completely afraid to dip its toes into obvious controversy so as to preserve a shallow image of entrepreneurial idolatry. If you aren’t interested in buying stocks in Steve Madden, there is no reason to watch Maddman; if you are interested, be very conscious of how the film is aiming to manipulate you.