‘House of Hammer’ is a damning account of a dynasty built on fraud, deceit, and fear
This three-part doc shows that the allegations of sexual assault against Armie Hammer stem from a family history of invincibility through privilege.
This story has accounts of sexual abuse.
In early July of 1988, Occidental Petroleum’s 12-year-old oil rig standing way out in the North Sea, Piper Alpha, needs repairs and major upgrades. By the mid-1980s the price of oil has plummeted, and in an attempt to boost its waning profits, Occidental decides to keep pumping oil from the ocean floor, even through the construction. Control rooms are now situated next to pipes and compressors. A pressure release valve was removed for maintenance and replaced with a temporary one that Occidental never bothered to test.
At 9:55 p.m. on July 6, an explosion shoots through the rig, then more explosions an hour later; eventually, the rig is engulfed in flames that can be seen from 70 miles away. It collapses into the water and takes three weeks before the fire can even be extinguished. 167 men on board are killed, 30 of them never recovered. It remains the worst accident on an offshore platform in world history.
Shortly after the explosion, the Occidental president gives a tremendously shameless performance to the press; he feigns sorrow and takes all the blame, he looks appropriately devastated on a runway, valiantly standing in front of news cameras. Prince Charles rushes to his aid in a big spectacle, telling the president he can’t blame himself for the catastrophe. Of course, it was all a lie.
Neil Lyndon, the president’s media consultant, said that when the president walked onto the jet to fly back home, he shouted up to the staff, “let’s have some champagne and caviar, we’ve had a great day!”
The president was Armand Hammer — confidant of kings and presidents, extortionist extraordinaire, part-time art counterfeiter, and great grandfather of Armie Hammer.
In the third and final episode of House of Hammer, over old footage where smoke from the Piper Alpha can be seen billowing up above the clouds through the window of a plane, Lyndon says, “Hammer took no interest whatsoever in the survivors or the families of the dead.” The scene cuts to Lyndon sitting in his interview, starting to cry. He left Occidental shortly after the explosion. “I think (Armand) was the most satanic man of the second half of the 20th century,” he says.
House of Hammer’s trailer packaged the series mostly as a chilling tell-all with some of the women who have recently accused Armie of sexual assault. It does tell these stories, from the first, studiously unthreatening texts he ever sent each of them to the sudden pivot to graphic depictions of cannibalism and in-person BDSM scenarios he subjected them to.
But the series is broadly interested in the grotesque behaviors of the absurdly wealthy, the black, howling chasm within all of them, and their dead-eyed attempts to patch over it with lust, pseudo romance, domination, and displays of sexual obedience. The show is about consumption and authority, the fantasies and obsessions of people who have been so rich for so long and so insulated from any real consequence that these things do not seem strange to them or even dangerous but like a twisted, exciting sort of mythology.
What happens when there is no crime you can be prosecuted for, no president or king who does not owe you a favor, no woman you cannot have? What happens when there is no level of influence left to ascend to? You go insane, it seems, for one. But you keep trying to find more, no matter who you must crush in the process. When they bust you for laundering Watergate money, you just plea it down to a misdemeanor, and after that presidents will pardon you. There is always a museum you can name after yourself, always a university you can endow, always a shined-up, fraudulent image of yourself to peddle.
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House of Hammer begins with a montage of DM screenshots and gossipy headlines about Armie from early 2021. One of his ex-girlfriends, Courtney Vucekovich, then describes their first in-person meeting. He drove them out to the California desert, where they spent every day for the next three weeks together at a motel his friend was refurbishing. They set up a projector screen in the yard and watched ET. They took selfies in the car. They talked about their traumatic childhoods.
The series shows first how easily all of this could be intoxicating, a wistful fantasy month with someone tall and rich and totally devoted to you, in California, the land of indestructible dreams. But this, too, was a lie.
Armie presented himself to Vucekovich, to all his girlfriends, and to us, the audience in the Pop Culture Thunderdome, as someone embarrassed of his fortune and fame and the sort of nefarious aura of being raised in the Cayman Islands. He wanted to be seen as the chastened aristocrat. The image of sophistication and wealth but, he reminded us, with none of that unseemly exploitation and impropriety required to attain it. In a 2012 interview with Entertainment Weekly, he said, “I am not supported by [family money] in any way. I support myself. My wife and I together — it’s all our household. I’m really proud of that.”
In Hammer’s film roles he has always seemed to be caught between lightly mocking his biography and feasting on the characters it allowed him to plausibly play. In the first episode of House of Hammer, one of Hammer’s old Tuesday night acting school classmates, Ryan Bailey says, “I do remember hearing that David Fincher (the director of The Social Network) liked Armie’s pedigree. ‘(The Winklevoss twins) are millionaires, who is better than that?’” In Social Network he played the striving heirs of Ivy League aristocracy — their mix of Grand Ambition and incompetence. In The Man From UNCLE he was generically handsome with a mysterious past. In Call Me By Your Name, seductive but elusive. He had a movie star’s looks but none of their verve. In House of Hammer, we see clips of him on late-night show appearances looking like he is making small talk with a cab driver.
The details from each of the ex-girlfriends about their sexual encounters with Armie are all intensely unsettling, but also, he comes across as a man who is unbelievably desperate to seem interesting and wild, to have some kind of identity besides resentfully playing the well-mannered golden boy of high society that he was to varying degrees in both his career and real life. Before he and Courtney ever meet, he drives to her apartment complex and texts her a picture of the entrance, along with “Trying to find your scent.” In 2020, he uses a knife to carve his initial above then-new girlfriend Paige Lorenz’s pubic bone and drinks the blood from it. At the very beginning of his relationship with Julia Morrison, he applauded her Instagram story about “eating the rich.”
The show then introduces the rest of the Hammer family via Wikipedia pages, interviews with social media commentators, bloggers, TikTokers, gossip accounts, google search results, Instagram tags, all of it filling the screen as if we were scrolling on our phone. It is an appropriate touch, because this is how things are investigated now – some great scandal that was ignored or deliberately misconstrued by an often complicit media, the work of troweling through Instagram find Hammer’s fake profile left to random accounts with no agenda besides the gnawing feeling that rich maniacs were getting over on us again and we wanted to know exactly how.
We meet Armie’s father, Michael, who spent his teenage years doing cocaine at parties his father Julian hosted in his Los Angeles mansion, alongside the 17-year-old girls Julian invited. Michael eventually starts dating the daughter of a wealthy religious family from Tulsa, none of the Hammers think it will last, but Armand encourages it because this was the appropriate wife of American Royalty. This is what the entire family is: a marketing invention, thieves and coked-up brats made to look like Very Serious businessmen and humanitarians. Armand was grooming Michael to be his successor, but Michael never really makes it. His great achievement is forging Rothkos and Pollocks, buying a Rolls Royce with money from Armand’s foundation, and burning down a Pasadena mansion during construction.
The series shows the family’s near century-long pattern of intimidation to get what it wants, from an interpersonal level to blackmailing politicians with secret microphones installed in cufflinks. Michael’s sister, Casey, describes how often her father would threaten to kill her mother, and how Armand would tell her that if she ever left him, “I’ll ruin you and make your life miserable and you won’t have a penny.” We see the divorce statements from Armand’s second wife, where she said, “He is a master of psychological warfare.”
But for all his life he was invincible. He could enter the Kremlin as he pleased. Buckingham Palace, the White House. The show plays audio recordings of him taking a call from JFK. At a certain age, he became one of those quintessentially American figures who existed as much just to wear shawl neck tuxedos at galas while dozens of other men tossed out bon mots about golf and philanthropy. He was part of a storied American tradition: A rich, ancient man with a big appetite but no real interest in the taste of food.
He was a crook lucky enough to exist at a time when one of America’s chief industries was minting crooks, their rotten enterprises all left to inept heirs who had no skills or ideas of their own besides increasingly more pathetic scams and more threadbare attempts to hide them.
Casey describes the hours after Armand died, when four cars pulled up to his Los Angeles estate, and Michael and his wife immediately began stripping the art off the walls and loading it up into them. We find out that Julian once stole Michael’s girlfriend from him, and that Michael slept with almost every one of Casey’s closest friends. No one has any pride because their reputation is a myth; there is no loyalty because all they have is what they take from others. There is no legacy, nothing left behind, just a dwindling fortune that changes hands every 30-something years.
As of the show’s premiere, Hammer had reportedly moved back to California from the Cayman Islands. In one of the most recent photos of him, he is squinting at his phone on the sunny concrete patio of a hotel, wearing a pair of $20 Amazon boardshorts.