Imagine a lawyer describing in an interview; “They were actually going to have a human sitting on an exercise bike. They would then be exposed to gas directly from the diesel vehicles. And then, they would poke and prod that person later to determine, uh, what type of health effects they would see from this person being gassed.” This lawyer would then go on to say, “Obviously, one cannot help to think back throughout the history of another series of events involving individuals being gassed by an individual who was at the opening of a Volkswagen factory.” Then a hard cut to a picture of Adolf Hitler inspecting a miniature Volkswagen car. This is one of the many vivid descriptive scenes found in the first episode of the Netflix Original Documentary series, “Dirty Money”.
“Dirty Money” attempts to shed some light on business practices that are highly unethical and in most cases straight-out illegal, but that are conducted in many cases by large everyday corporations. This particular documentary series is the creation of academy awards winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney.
The six-episode series covers; emission cheating practices by Volkswagen, racketeering practices by a PayDay Loan company, Valeant’s drug short, HSBC alleged leniency on drug money, a maple syrup heist in Canada and Donald Trump’s business practices.
While the six episodes do have the thread of focusing on businesses that run unethically and operating in most cases on the edge of the law, each episode feels like its own documentary film with its own slightly distinctive style. Each episode is also directed by a separate documentary film director. Outside of the subject matter, the main visual red thread is the intro and visual style of the credits.
In the first episode of the series, we are learn how Volkswagen introduced a diesel car model only in the United States that performed better then what any other make was able to perform when it came to NOx emissions. Through interviews with various experts, we understand how Volkswagen was able to cheat on the emissions standards by programming every car made to function slightly differently when it picked up on cues that are indicative of an emission testing scenario.
In the episode named “Payday Loan,” we are introduced to a man who can clearly be described as the antagonist of the episode Scott Tucker. We soon learn that Tucker enriched himself by charging customers undisclosed payday-loan fees and charging interest rates as high as 500 % per annum. He was able to live lavishly and created a racing team that allowed him to win the American Le Mans championship on the backs of struggling Americans.
The episode reveals that Tucker was sentenced to 16 years in federal prison and a $1.26 billion judgment. The most important aspect of this episode is that it really highlights the differences in lifestyle and security between low-income Americans and the top earners. Also, their perspectives on the world are like night and day.
In the Episode “Drug Short”, it shows how much pharmaceutical companies increase prices on lifesaving drugs in an attempt to turn a fast profit on the acquisition of smaller pharmaceutical companies. This particular documentary questions the people who are willing to make a buck risking the lives of thousands of patients.
The episode “Cartel Bank” digs into how HSBC allegedly helped drug cartels launder money through their vast global banking system, and furthermore how the United States government and even congressional investigations has failed to rally deal with this issue.
I think this was the episode where I had the most unexpected reaction. As it turns out, Canadians are so polite and good people that even when they commit a crime it is in a “nicer” way than the rest of the world. While we grow up with bank robberies, it turns out that one of Ottawa’s most infamous heists is “The Maple Syrup Heist”, and no it is not a euphemism. The criminals, in this case, went to prison for stealing and dealing maple syrup outside the regulatory jurisdiction of the maple syrup cartel known as the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers
The final episode is a bit at odds with the rest of the subject and it seems like the topic was selected due to its timeliness and controversy surrounding Donald Trump during his first year as President, rather then the relationship to the other topics. The episode so cleverly called “The Confidence Man” dives into how Donald Trump established himself as a real-estate mogul and the poster man of success in American popular culture in spite of bankruptcies, product failures and the advantage of starting out with the infamous $1 million loan from his father.
At its core this documentary series is in an interesting collection that is worth watching if you enjoy Frontline, Vice or documentaries in general.