From state lotteries to Mississippi paddle boats to Indian casinos, America’s love affair with gambling can be seen everywhere. Americans spend over $50 billion a year on legal gambling alone, representing a phenomenal growth of the business in recent years. Lisanne Skyler’s Dreamland takes a sharp but disarming approach to examining the romance of gambling and the reality behind it. Through the lives of members of Las Vegas’ local community, Dreamland reveals a cityscape beyond the grandiose new casino-hotels that have drawn millions of tourists and gridlocked the gambling capital’s main thoroughfares. It is a world consisting of the smaller gambling halls and countless gambling arcades that exist throughout Las Vegas. Here gambling is a constant temptation, and among the locals who patronize these casinos, many struggle daily with compulsion and self-impoverishment while walking the tenuous line between dreams and escape.
Lou Gerard gambling. Photo by Kevin Black
Skyler’s film is populated with the denizens of gambling’s native city. We meet middle class retirees for whom gambling brings back childhood; working people who “look for the streaks” and sometimes fall as hard as drug addicts; casino dealers, born and raised in Vegas, who find they can get hooked as well as anyone on the opposite side of the table; and professional gamblers who wouldn’t wish their lives on anyone. Most affectingly, we meet Lou Gerard, ex- Los Angeles tailor.
The story of Gerard’s semi-retirement and move to Las Vegas, where he hopes to indulge harmlessly his love for gambling, gives Dreamland its narrative spine. His respite would seem well-earned and thought-out, his approach to gambling reasonable. And he shows a streak of exuberance whenever he enters his favorite place — Benny Binion’s Horseshoe Casino right in downtown Las Vegas. But Gerard soon finds himself contending with his gambling compulsion and having to work more on the side to keep up with his losses. It becomes clear that he is battling loneliness and aging as much as the odds.
Ultimately, Dreamland is a penetrating look at how compulsive gambling acts like other addictions to block out pain, loneliness and distress, giving the gambler a fleeting sense of control and happiness. But Dreamland stays compassionate rather than judgmental, using frank, revealing interviews to create a lingering image evoking the contradictory reality behind America’s high-stakes pastime.
“The truth behind the stereotype of the compulsive gambler as a pinky-ring-wearing, cigar smoking, heavy male was what we wanted to discover. During the making of the film, we realized that the compulsive gambler can be anybody—students, mothers and fathers, grandparents—everyday people like you and me,” says Lisanne Skyler.