May 5, 2019
by Carla Hay
“What Will Become of Us”
Directed by Steven Cantor
World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on May 2, 2019.
In the documentary “What Will Become of Us,” Frank Lowy, the billionaire founder of the Westfield corporation of shopping malls, has a dilemma: Should he sell his beloved business and go into retirement, or should he keep his business, which he plans to leave to his three sons? At first glance, this might seem like a movie about “rich people’s problems.” However, Lowy (who was born in 1930) has a much more emotionally riveting and fascinating story to tell in this film, which clocks in at a brisk 75 minutes.
Lowy, who was born in the country then known as Czechoslovakia, is not a spoiled heir who was handed his wealth by a privileged parent. He literally has a “rags to riches” story as a Jewish refugee of Nazis who invaded his country and tore his family apart. In “What Will Become of Us,” Lowy, accompanied by his biographer David Kushner, goes back to many of the sites from his childhood that still haunt him.
Growing up, Lowy was bullied and beaten up for being Jewish. His childhood experiences are still painful for him to remember, because he calls the country of his birth “a horrible place” with “sad memories.” From 1943 to 1945, Lowy and his family (his parents, his sister and his brother) lived in Budapest, Hungary. Lowy had a very close relationship with his father, who disappeared when Lowy was 14, during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. Lowy says he still grieves for his father, and he is at his most tearful in the documentary when he talks about his father. Later on in the movie, Lowy finds out what finally happened to his long-lost father.
After fleeing Nazi-occupied Hungary, Lowy and his family went their separate ways. He lived in Palestine and Israel from 1946 to 1952. His sister married a lawyer in Australia, where his mother and brother eventually moved. Lowy later joined them in Australia in 1952, when he began his life as a business mogul in Sydney.
Lowy had humble beginnings in Australia, where he started off as a delivery boy. He saved up enough money to eventually buy a deli and a coffee shop, which he sold and used the money to buy real estate. His real-estate dealings evolved into the shopping-mall business that he is known for today. (In 1960, Lowy co-founded Westfield with John Saunders, who sold his interest in the company to Lowy years later.)
“What Will Become of Us” also delves into Lowy’s personal life. Married to his wife Shirley since 1964, Lowy describes their relationship as “love at first sight” for him when he met her at a Hanukkah party. He was 31, and she was 19 when they met, and they married 18 months later. It sounds like an ideal love story, but Shirley now has Alzheimer’s disease. As Frank describes it, “Physically, she’s there, but mentally she’s not.” She is interviewed in the movie, which shows some instances of her memory loss.
Frank also says that he’s been a hardcore workaholic for decades, so that might be why the documentary doesn’t really give much information about the relationships that he’s had with his three sons: Peter and Steven (the co-CEOs of Westfield) and David, a principal of the Lowy Family Group. All three sons are interviewed in the movie, but they don’t reveal anything about the family dynamics in running the business or how they deal with each other on a personal level. Although Frank is shown being a devoted husband tending to Shirley, one has to wonder how small of a fraction of time that is for him, compared to all the time he admits to spending on his business.
At the beginning of the movie, Frank says it’s “painful” for him to open up negotiations to sell Westfield. If you follow corporate business news, then you know what his decision was on whether or not to sell the company. “What Will Become of Us” isn’t really a window into how Westfield is run, but it’s a fairly effective attempt to make billionaire Frank Lowy look more human and emotionally vulnerable than the ruthless image that corporate moguls like him tend to have.