For pro-business advocates of deregulation, “Dirty Money” – a compelling six-part Netflix documentary series – offers a simple yet powerful rejoinder: Look at the terrible, unethical behavior that corporate entities try getting away with when they think nobody’s looking.
Produced under the aegis of Alex Gibney, whose credits include “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Dirty Money” features an attention-getting chapter devoted to the Trump Organization. Subtitled “The Confidence Man,” the film details Donald Trump’s business career, along with some of his shadier, well-documented dealings with questionable sources of capital.
It’s a provocative come-on, although in some respects an unnecessary one, relative to the lower-profile sins explored here committed in the name of profit, putting the lie to Gordon Gekko’s famous line, “Greed is good.”
Turning each topic over to a different filmmaker, Gibney directed and narrates “Hard Nox,” which examines how Volkswagen conspired to mislead consumers and regulators about its “clean diesel” technology, fostering the appearance that the company had somehow “solved a problem no one else could.”
Volkswagen ultimately paid a steep price for its malfeasance, being fined $2.8 billion as part of a criminal settlement with the U.S. Justice Department. Yet it’s the brazenness of the company’s actions – tampering with its device to “make it better at cheating” – that really stands out, a theme that recurs across the different stories.
Another installment focuses on Valeant, a drug company that dramatically marked up its prices, gouging consumers. (Martin Shkreli, the convicted poster child for that behavior at Turing Pharmaceuticals, makes what amounts to a cameo appearance, but as the film makes clear, was hardly Big Pharma’s only bad actor.)
Other hours deal with a predatory payday-loan scam, which includes gaining access to the company’s founder, Scott Tucker, for an uncomfortable interview; “The Maple Syrup Heist,” a rather self-explanatory title for a sticky situation that took place in Canada; and the bank HSBC laundering more than $880 million for Mexican drug cartels.
In what feels like a signature moment, Tucker looks taken aback when asked if he’s a moral person, finally responding, “I’m a business person.”
As for Trump, many of the interludes in that film have been thoroughly examined, but director Fisher Stevens has neatly woven the strands together – including his failed casinos, and how “The Apprentice” “repositioned him in the American imagination,” as biographer Tim O’Brien puts it, later describing Trump’s “reptilian, street-smart awareness of the power of media.”
While each film stands on its own, the real weight to “Dirty Money” comes in viewing them together, providing a series of case studies of unethical or illegal practices challenging the argument that government should, in essence, get out of business’s way.
With the current administration paring back regulation, Gibney and company have thus delivered a pointed and timely reply, one that not-so-subtly argues that without watchful oversight, the smartest guys in the room can be guilty of shady and yes, dirty dealings. That might be good for business, but as one film after another demonstrates, it’s bad for consumers that run afoul of them.
“Dirty Money” premieres Jan. 26 on Netflix.