In the worst tradition of hypocrites everywhere, Jerry Falwell Jr. admonished his flock to abstain from alcohol, premarital (and certainly extramarital) sexual activity, and no dancing. But as we now know, the president of Virginia’s Liberty University was not only fond of a stiff drink, he and his wife Becki were involved in a multiyear throuple with a twentysomething pool boy they met at Miami’s swanky Fontainebleau hotel.
Falwell was forced out of Liberty, founded by his televangelist father, and the couple has largely disappeared from public view. But the damage had already been done: With Falwell’s endorsement, the Christian Right got behind Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020, sending him to the White House the first time and refusing to concede defeat the second time around. In this extremely cynical move, Falwell showed—as he has in so many other ways before and since—that what mattered wasn’t setting a positive example of living one’s life according to Jesus’s teachings, but rather acccuring as much money and power as possible.
While the Falwells have largely shied from public view since the scandal broke, the young men at the apex of their tawdry triangle, Giancarlo Granda, is telling his side of the story in a new book called “Off the Deep End: Jerry and Becki Falwell and the Collapse of an Evangelical Dynasty.” He is also the prime interviewee in the fascinating new documentary “God Forbid: The Sex Scandal That Brought Down a Dynasty,” now streaming on Hulu.
Filmmaker Billy Corben (the “Cocaine Cowboys” series) shared that it was Granda who initially contacted him, not the other way around. Corben and his co-producers couldn’t help but be fascinated by an email subject line reading: “Giancarlo Granda-pool boy-Jerry Fallwell Jr. and Donald Trump-story.”
“We track ‘Florida fuckery,’ that’s our genre,” Corben said recently, “these only-in-Miami, kind of bizarre butterfly effect kind of stories that [entail] these scandalous interactions that have this ripple effect that change the world. Or have this Miami connection.”
Indeed, Corben said the offices of his production company, Rakontur, are but a few blocks from the investment property the Falwells essentially bought Granda to run. Even after the relationship became public—thanks largely to shady dealings among Granda’s business partners and later legal trouble, as shown in the doc—the Falwells and Granda still co-own the property, among whose tenants is a liquor store.
“The blogosphere and Twitterverse were left to fill in the blanks on why the Falwells were partners in a multimillion-dollar—it was a $4.6 million commercial real estate parcel—with a pool boy who had been [working] at the Fontainebleau hotel the year before,” Corben said. “There was a lot of fun with the implausibility with the president and first lady of the largest Christian university in the world owning…these businesses that seem to be inconsistent with the values—and in fact the code of conduct at their institution.
“Limelight,” the NYC club phenomenon that was (our review)
“As more evidence and stories came out, they were insinuating that if [their business partners] were to take this dispute public through the court system, they knew the truth about the relationship between the Falwells and Giancarlo—that it wasn’t just a partnership, and that they had photographic evidence to back it up.”
Sex, money, double-crosses, adultery, moral crusaders with secret freaky private lives. The scandal has it all—and more. In “God Forbid,” Granda relates how the Falwells showered him with attention, money and access. Granda, who thought of himself as a conservative, met and was photographed with then-candidate Trump in 2016. At first, Granda claims in the doc, he wasn’t bothered by the two-faced visage the Falwells presented to the world. But as Trump became a wannabe strongman, Granda tells Corben’s camera he was reminded far too much of Fidel Castro, whose regime Granda’s family had fled from Cuba.
And if the Falwells initially tried to deny the affair between Becki and Granda, the young man had receipts in the form of voicemails, naughty text messages and other interactions with the power couple. Furthermore, as the world now knows, Jerry liked to watch from the corner as the young man had sex with his wife—while pleasuring himself. Jerry often took videos, which also backed up Granda’s account.
But even with all the salaciousness of his story, Corben said there were nonetheless aspects of Granda’s private life he wished to remain off-camera.
“There were a couple of relationships he had with young women his own age that are referenced in the documentary, but their faces are blurred,” Corben said. Yet even when Corben was seemingly off the market, Becki continued to press him for more attention. “What is weird is that the Falwells welcomed Giancarlo into their family as one of their sons—particularly as he was the same age as one of their sons,” the filmmaker shared. “They welcomed the girlfriends too. They came to the property in Lynchburg, they stayed in the guesthouse.
[READ ANTHONY FRANCIS’S REVIEW OF ‘GOD FORBID’]
“One of the girlfriends I think was in pre-med, and they were inviting them to move to Lynchburg: Giancarlo would work for Liberty [and] they would get her an internship at a hospital.”
When asked if he made attempts to convince the Falwells to sit for interviews, Corben responded: “Oh, Jerry is in the corner right now watching me.” When the laughter ebbed, he shared that, via their attorneys, the couple said thanks no thanks.
Although the Falwells’ sanctimony is on full display both in the documentary and in their many hedging public statements since news of the affair came out, Corben insists he isn’t out to tarnish their name—or that of Liberty University.
“This documentary is about people who exploit Christians and Christianity for power and profit,” he says. “Giancarlo felt a lot of compassion for the people of Liberty University. You’re talking about true believers, not just in the Gospels but in the mission of the institution. You’re talking about parents who sent their kids to study there because they believed in this kind of education. So you have this disconnect, obviously, between that student body and the leadership under Jerry Falwell Jr.”
Corben said he’s talked to current and former Liberty students who express frustration with the Falwells. They wish to better the world via their works and live a faithful life, even if employers might now look askance at their academic resumes.
“They talk about the diminished quality of their education, the diminished quality of their degrees,” Coben said. “When you say ‘I graduated from Liberty,’ they go straight to this. And it’s not fair—it’s not fair at all. And you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people.”
If there’s a lesson here, Corben believes, it’s to live your best life in the grand tradition of Miami. Just don’t tell others what to do in the meantime.
“Fly down in the Liberty University private jet, drink, party, go out to clubs, have safe sex with consenting adults. What happens in Miami stays in Miami—sometimes,” Corben said. “But I [decry] the holier-than-thou hypocrisy, the idea that these people would impose their moral values onto not just the student body and the faculty, but the country—to say do as we say, not as we do.
“You’re enforcing that with monetary penalties, suspension, and expulsion” in the student code of conduct, he said. “And yet the Falwells are in Miami treating the Ten Commandments like a bucket list.”
Corben shared that he will return to the “Cocaine Cowboys” series with another, perhaps final, entry thanks to his unprecedented access to Medellín Cartel co-founder Carlos Lehder following his many years in prison. In addition to the juicy tidbits about the cocaine trade, Corben said the Lehder interviews allow him to further explore the story of Miami, where he lives and works.
“It’s not just a story of Miami or Florida or even the United States, it’s a story about the corruption of the entire Western Hemisphere through the cocaine trade, money laundering, and ultimately the misguided and failed war on drugs in response to this cartel,” Corben said, adding that Lehder is keen to “correct the record” set by films such as “Blow” and “American Made.”
In the meantime, “God Forbid” is now available on Hulu for all to behold Granda telling his side of the narrative about the seamy relationship with the Falwells in all of its unvarnished glory.
“We’re telling a story of this surreal threesome that started poolside in Miami with this 20-year-old pool attendant and members of this rich and powerful evangelical dynasty,” Corben said. “Then again, what we’re really telling is the story of this 50-year, multigenerational story about a family that has had outsize influence in presidential politics.”
Corben speaks with an excited timbre, as if there isn’t enough time to relate the ins and outs of the sordid tales he has uncovered over several decades as a documentarian. While informed and informative, he nonetheless understands that his mission is also to maintain an audience’s interests. Thus he labels this style of filmmaking “pop docs.”
“We straddle that line between journalism and entertainment. The obligation is always to the truth and to follow the facts, but on that journey, we still have an obligation to entertain the audience,” Corben said. “We never take the audience’s time for granted. I know that they’re investing in us and trusting us with hours that they will never get back. So you’re hopefully entertained over the course of the story, but then you also walk away having learned something.
“We make a living doing something we love in America in 2022. That is a blessing. But I think when we do what we do well, we speak truth to power. We punch up a little bit and we tell inconvenient truths.”
When asked for what advice he might give other filmmakers, Corben said it’s key to observe a strategy of “RAS”: relevance, access and style.
Or, in his more colorful language: “Find a good story, and don’t fuck it up.”
“God Forbid: The Sex Scandal That Brought Down a Dynasty” is available on Hulu now