IT ALL began, it seems, with a horse. When filming on 1944's girl-meets-horse movie National Velvet was completed, the studio was so delighted with its child star Elizabeth Taylor that it gifted her a nag of her own.
For Taylor, demanding -- and receiving -- a lavish gift every time she made a movie became a habit that lasted a lifetime. "I don't think I've received my prezzie yet," was all she had to simper to whoever was in charge, after which an obscenely expensive trinket would be promptly delivered into her grasping, already heavily bejewelled hands.
We never learned what became of the horse -- although judging from Taylor's over-the-top tastes in bangles and spangles, it wouldn't come as a surprise if she'd had it dipped in gold and attached to a neck chain.
Thanks, if that's the word, to Michael Waldman's exhaustive and frequently exhausting 90-minute documentary Elizabeth Taylor: Auction of a Lifetime, we know the fate of the fortune in jewellery Taylor amassed from her seven husbands, especially Mike Todd and Richard Burton. It was auctioned off by Sotheby's in New York last year, with individual items fetching anything between 10 and 50 times the guide price listed in the glossy sales programme, which itself cost an eye-watering $300.
Such is the dazzling power of wealth and celebrity. As a film-maker, Walden was dazzled too. Auction of a Lifetime set out to tell Taylor's story -- or part of it, anyway -- by linking individual pieces of jewellery to key points in her life and career. But even before it reached the absurd final chapter of Taylor's life, when she was hanging out with that other piece of celebrity wreckage Michael Jackson, this insanely long film had become a blur of bling.
Still, for anyone interested in the corrosive effects of fame mixed with acquisitiveness, there was a lot to ponder here. Joan Collins, a kind of bargain-basement Taylor who was her unofficial understudy for the disastrous Cleopatra, recalled a party in Rome during filming when Taylor humiliated her third husband, Eddie Fisher.
Fisher, who'd got wind of her on-set affair with Burton, turned up to win her back with, inevitably, jewellery. Taylor, treating Fisher like dirt and his gift like a Christmas cracker knick-knack, dismissively passed it down the table for others to ogle.
At least the cuckolded Fisher had the good sense to send the Taylor the jeweller's bill when he got home to Hollywood. Taylor's previous husband, the immensely rich movie producer Mike Todd -- the only true love of her life, she once claimed, apart from Burton -- seemed to be even more of a puttyish puppy in the actress's hands.
In one of his more lavish gestures, he had a pair of cheap paste earrings Taylor owned copied using $25,000 worth of real diamonds. Todd died in a plane crash a year after they married. Taylor later said that had he lived, she'd have stayed married to him.
"He also gave her some of the nicest jewellery," deadpanned former Sotheby's employee Ward Landigan. Actually, Landigan, who often acted as a courier delivering whatever expensive gift Richard Burton had purchased for his wife (usually paid for with the far richer Taylor's own money), was the best talking head in the film.
He recalled hand-delivering the famed La Peregrina pearl, an important piece that had adorned the necks of five Spanish queens, to Taylor and Burton's hotel room, where the couple had been drinking all day.
Within 20 minutes of Taylor trying it on, the pearl went missing. Between panicked searches through the dense carpet, Landigan noticed the couple's dog choking and hastily retrieved it from the pooch's mouth.
As a testament to decadent self-indulgence, the anecdote was hard to beat. But much of the film seemed as in thrall to Taylor's shallow glamour as her husbands had been and it was left to Mickey Rooney, Taylor's National Velvet co-star, to scornfully describe her as "a walking jewellery store".
Sadly, like Mickey himself, it was too little.
elizabeth taylor: auction of a lifetime HHIII