Every pregnancy is ultimately a roll of the dice, and no one knows that better than the subjects of Amanda Micheli’s documentary “Vegas Baby.”
Produced by Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me,” “Rats”), the film examines the lucrative business of in vitro fertilization (an industry the film claims will gross $30 billion in the next five years) by looking at a clever and successful marketing and branding tool employed by IVF pioneer Geoffrey Sher’s Las Vegas clinic.
Every year the company holds a lottery in which childless couples send in videos that make the pitch for a free treatment (valued at roughly $20,000). A panel of judges evaluates the pleas from the short list of candidates voted on by social media. It then chooses a handful of compelling finalists before picking one winner.
It sounds like a natal version of “America’s Got Talent” or “Spellbound,” with human lives at stake.
Like the latter documentary, “Vegas Baby” follows the stories of a diverse group of contestants. They include Ann and Brian Johnson, of Green Bay, Wis., an interracial couple (Micheli, perhaps wisely, does not comment on this) who have lost prematurely born twins. They have also been unsuccessful in adopting, and see this as their last chance to have a family.
Rosalinda and Dago Patlan, a Hispanic couple from San Antonio, have tried repeatedly without success to have a baby, despite the toll it has taken on their finances and relationship. Rosalinda, who at a young age lost her father and two brothers, insists that she be the biological mother. She refuses to adopt, an attitude that weighs on Dago, who was himself adopted as a child.
Athena Reich, from New York City, is a performer who works as a Lady Gaga impersonator. She finds it more difficult to admit to herself that she is infertile than it was for her to come out to others that she is gay.
There is only one winner, but the two runners-up also persevere in their wish to have the treatment, which Sher offers at a discount. Nonetheless the cost — not just financial, but emotional and in terms of relationships — is considerable.
Sher himself has no qualms about profiting from his patients’ predicaments. Admitting he is an “entrepreneur,” he adds, “People think of medicine as a calling. It is a calling, but it is also a business.” Nonetheless, his patients adore him. His bedside manner is impeccably good-humored and compassionate.
The medical ethics of the IVF business is just one topic touched on in the film’s 77 minutes. But it does not linger long on any single issue, situation, or dramatic moment (the scenes in the office in which the PR head and other decision makers plan strategy makes you wonder how Frederick Wiseman would have handled the material). Sometimes a narrative transition is rendered through a single, startlingly effective cut. This strategy has the advantage of a brisk pace and a compassionate detachment, but perhaps a longer format would offer more depth and detail.
“It is hard for anyone to understand any experience they haven’t had,” says Reich’s mother. “But they have all kinds of opinions and aren’t afraid to give them.”
This film offers a glimpse into one such experience.
“Vegas Baby” can be seen on PBS World Channel’s “America Reframed” on Tuesday at 8 p.m. For more information go to www.pbs.org/video/3001404799.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.