By Andrew Millman
Netflix recently came out with a new docuseries titled Dirty Money, from documentarian Alex Gibney, whose previous work has included Going Clear, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and other notable recent documentaries. The six-episode series focuses on several different cases of scandal and corruption in big business, each directed by a different documentary filmmaker. Every episode looks at its own particularly rage-inducing scandal, from Volkswagen cheating on emissions tests, to payday lenders cheating the poor, Big Pharma needlessly raising the prices for life-saving drugs, one of the world’s largest banks laundering money for Mexican cartels, the Canadian maple syrup industry, and, finally, Donald Trump. Gibney explains that the common theme is how unfettered capitalism prioritizes the accumulation of capital, in calculations of risk and reward, over all other considerations, especially morality.
Gibney directs the first episode, “Hard NOx,” about the Volkswagen scandal. Executives at the German car company orchestrated an elaborate conspiracy to have their environmentally-unfriendly cars pass emissions tests. It has been cited as a primary reason for the poor air quality in many major cities, and linked to thousands of deaths and new cases of asthma over the past few years. When the fraud became public, Volkswagen had to recall thousands of cars that had been sold as “clean diesel,” while being some of the dirtiest cars on the road.
Anyone who has watched The Big Short would recognize the story of the third episode, which follows several investors who shorted pharmaceutical giant Valeant. The company had decided it wasn’t profitable anymore to invest in research and development for new drugs, and instead raised prices, including on life-saving drugs, to increase their profits. The scam finally came crashing down after Hillary Clinton called the company out for price-gouging during the 2016 campaign. The company’s stock dropped over ninety percent and the investors who shorted the company made millions. However, the prices of Valeant’s drugs remain high, and many people are still suffering from their greed.
The final episode of the first season centers on Donald Trump and the Trump Organization. The other five articles were about fraudulent products that corrupt companies were selling to the public, but the fraud in “Con Man” is Trump himself. The brand he sold to the American people was built on lies. He has billed himself as a successful businessman and a billionaire, but he went bankrupt numerous times, and had to take millions in loans from his father and then later from unsavory foreign investors, including Russian oligarchs and authoritarian regimes. Trump had been basically insolvent before The Apprentice and two producers for the show were interviewed, in which they dismantle the image of Trump as a great businessman that propelled him to the presidency.
The six episodes, each about an hour, were all captivating in their own ways. Each made you feel enraged by the heartless greed of the people involved. The series is great at rendering compelling stories about grift and corruption, while explaining some very complex material. The Trump episode is likely the one that most people would gravitate towards, but watch the other five first because it provides a global context of fraud for the Trump episode.