Does it bug the ever-loving shit out of you when people smugly say things like “follow the money” every time there’s a heated political debate and you get the sense that it’s a substitute for having followed much of anything? Or is that just me?
Following the food-crime series Rotten, Netflix’s new investigative docuseries, Dirty Money, doesn’t just tell you to Follow the Money like it’s a social media meme. These documentaries actually follow the freaking money. And take you with them on a journey through six episodes of corporate greed so bizarre and egregious that they just might change the way you think about whole industries, or how you’re living your life.
Alex Gibney (who also executive produces) kicks it off with a scathing look at the Volkswagen emissions scandal of 2016, in which it was discovered that emissions testing “defeat devices” had been installed to mask the fact that the automaker’s “clean diesel” engines were releasing dangerous amounts of particulate pollutants. It was a deliberate deceit of the EPA and the public that Gibney, himself a proud owner of one of these eco-friendly vehicles, took pretty personally. In the end, a couple of people who couldn’t evade responsibility were censured, but the company didn’t really go anywhere. The longest of the bunch, the episode doesn’t have the snappiest pacing, but if it feels a little slow in places, it more than makes up for it in thoroughness. At the time of filming, Volkswagen exec Martin Winterkorn had resigned, claiming no knowledge of the scandal, and the company faced… some fines. They no longer sell “clean” diesel cars in the U.S. But they still sell cars.
The other episodes cover everything from a maple syrup heist in Québec (who knew?) to the Trump empire. Some go long; some go deep. We look at what didn’t happen to HSBC when they were found to be laundering enormous amounts of money for drug cartels, and at the horrifying case of Valeant Pharmaceuticals from the point of view of a stock-shorting expert. Each of the directors, including Brian McGinn and Jesse Moss, brings his or her particular signature to stories that expose, calmly and clearly, the rampant corruption and malfeasance in the corporate world and how it affects people like you and me, even if we’re not aware of it (in some cases, even though we are aware of it).
Although these cases are all recent, all public record, and have probably made the news plenty of times (with the possible exception of “Maplegate,” which seems to be on a slightly smaller scale, though perhaps not if you’re from Québec), one of the things they have in common is that they’ve tended to be drowned out in a media signal-to-noise ratio that has made a lot of important consumer information hard to parse or follow. The six episodes of Dirty Money are an excellent antidote to News Noise. Meticulously researched and presented from a variety of perspectives, they tend to let the facts speak for themselves and they tend to have a lot of them. (An interesting variant is “Payday,” which follows the case of racecar driver Scott Tucker, who made over $400 million personally on an empire of dishonest payday loan organizations he falsely established on Native American tribal land to keep state government out of the picture. That episode gives a lot of airtime to Tucker’s family and a couple of friends, all of whom insist definitely that Tucker is the victim in the situation, and that repossessing his racecars was really mean of the FBI, who were probably just jealous of his opulent lifestyle or something.)
Directorial styles and esthetics are different from episode to episode, and you might prefer some to others—but every story is worth knowing more about. None of them takes on too big of a subject for the allotted time, none is one-sided, and most of them do a pretty deep dive into a specific act of criminal conduct. Not surprisingly, the episode that is arguably the most superficial of the group is the one focused on the President, but since superficial is the whole point of that individual it’s neither a surprising nor an inappropriate decision. Besides, I hear some of his financial records have been a little hard to get?
Want to Follow the Money? Follow this series.
Dirty Money is now streaming on Netflix.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.