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Series / Dirty Money

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Greed is bad.

Lie, cheat, steal, kill, win, win!
(Everybody doin' it.)
Run the Jewels, "Lie, Cheat, Steal" (The Thematic Real Song Theme Tune for the series)

Dirty Money (not to be confused with Dirty Sexy Money or, for that matter, an otherwise unrelated 2011 series also called Dirty Money) is a documentary series created by Alex Gibney (best known for his adaptations of Going Clear and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) focusing on greed, corruption, and crime throughout the global economy.

Gibney personally directed the first episode, while the remaining five were directed by other people; Gibney is credited as executive producer for the entire series. Each episode tackles a different topic, though there are overarching commonalities through the series. The first season, consisting of six episodes, premiered on Netflix on January 26, 2018.

The episodes, respectively, focus on:

  • Volkswagen's emissions fraud.
  • Donald Trump's business background.
  • Payday lending.
  • Price-gouging by pharmaceutical companies.
  • Money-laundering by American banks for Mexican drug cartels.
  • And a Canadian maple syrup heist (yes, seriously).

The series has premiered to critical acclaim; as of early February 2018, it has a 100% critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. A second six episode season of the series premiered in March 2020, covering topics such as the Wells-Fargo bank's fraudulent account sales, money laundering through Malaysia's national 1MDB company, Trump administration advisor Jared Kushner acting as a slumlord with his real estate holdings, and pollution from a plastic manufacturing plant in Texas.

Various episodes and/or the series as a whole contain examples of:

  • Abandoned Area: Several episodes repeatedly use shots of disused office buildings belonging to their subjects, underscoring the substantial decline in fortune these companies underwent after their fraud was uncovered.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Not always, perhaps, but ambition at the expense of empathy for others certainly is. There are plenty of people with other kinds of ambition (e.g., Fahmi Quadir in "Drug Short") who come across as looking positively saintlike by comparison.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The maple syrup episode, though it's a downplayed case - it still has serious points to make, despite its seemingly trivial subject. (And, as it clearly establishes, the subject is not trivial to Canadians. Note also that, while IMDb and other websites list the maple syrup episode last and the Trump episode, "The Confidence Man", second, "The Confidence Man" seems to be last on Netflix itself, arguably averting this trope as a result; the producers may have decided to alter the episode order at the last minute.)
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Scott Tucker, in "Payday", has a bunch of scenes where his collection of race cars are taken off by repo men as he is forced to watch. He clearly believes he's the victim of government persecution and frames himself as suffering it. Viewers are, by contrast, much more likely to see him as this given it was all paid for by money swindled from the poor.
    • Played with with the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers. Even though they had 18 million dollars worth of syrup stolen from them, they generally acted tyrannically and suppressed the choices of small local syrup producers. However, an alternate perspective is offered by Normand Urbain - The Federation could be considered as a force for good, helping the maple syrup industry to grow after previously struggling.
  • The Barnum: "The Confidence Man" explicitly compares Donald Trump to the Trope Namer.
  • Canada, Eh?: The maple syrup episode has a lot of fun with the perceptions of Canadians as polite, strait-laced people. This is true overall, but the episode nonetheless uncovers some very troubling issues. (The episode also repeatedly uses shots of dinosaur statues in front of a meeting place for the heist's perpetrators, apparently just due to their quirkiness.)
  • The Caper: A heist involving maple syrup is used as the Framing Device of, well, "The Maple Syrup Heist". The episode also discusses other issues involved in the chain of maple syrup production, but the heist itself is treated as reflective of the episode's central conflict and, it is implied, if that conflict isn't solved, another such theft should be considered almost inevitable.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: Played completely straight in some episodes, downplayed in others. The overall theme of the series is more like unrestrained, rapacious capitalism is bad.
    • Some of the episodes point to genuine societal benefits that have come from business - for instance, in "Drug Short", the research and development for new medical treatments and drugs that comes out of (most) pharmaceutical companies' budgets. The ethical contrast in this episode comes from two different management styles: the old-fashioned one in which companies threw ≈18% of their budgets back into R&D (typified by Allergan, a company profiled in the episode), and the flashier one typified by Martin Shkreli (who, despite his infamy, is mostly a cameo in the episode) and Valeant (the episode's central focus), where companies slash R&D and raise prices by astronomical amounts to compensate for the lack of new product - thus causing outright devastation to those who need their drugs. The episode explicitly blames this practice for the bulk of insurance premium increases (since insurance risk is pooled, even people who don't need the affected drugs still see premium increases as a result), and implicitly makes the case that it is outright destructive to the economy, because it creates no new value while causing financial hardship to untold millions. There's also a strong implication that it's unsustainable - Valeant is now stuck in limbo, unable to alter its prices and with its stock price floundering at (as of February 2018) $18.58, having cratered from $257.52 at its peak in July 2015. This has devastated both patients and investors, and yet, at the time the episode was filmed, investigators hadn't actually uncovered anything clearly illegal. Regardless, as infuriating as all this is, it's also implied that more accountability and better regulation would have prevented it - Allergan comes across as largely benevolent by comparison.
    • Others - e.g., "Hard NOx" - come down more harshly on capitalism overall. In this episode, it's purely due to the work of independent watchdogs that the emissions cheat is discovered, and it's only government regulators who get anything done about it. Volkswagen is essentially given an ultimatum: take accountability or you won't be allowed to sell any cars in the U.S. Even with this in mind, it's suggested that companies take cost-benefit analysis into mind when such cheats are implemented - i.e., they believe that it's cheaper to employ them and pay the legal penalties than it would be not to employ them. In some cases, they may actually be correct about this. It's also suggested that pressure to keep sales high and remain competitive is a large incentive for such behaviour in the first place.
    • The central problem that recurs throughout the series as a whole can be read as a global inability or unwillingness to create the regulations necessary to rein in this kind of behaviour - or that corruption is Inherent in the System with an economy based on greed. Because the filmmakers generally let the interview subjects speak for themselves, different viewers are likely to interpret any given episode in very different ways.
  • Con Man: "The Confidence Man" is the title of an episode about Donald Trump. A recurring theme throughout the series is White-Collar Crime, which is a subtrope of this; it's implied that the worst business criminals are often nothing more than examples of this trope on a much larger scale (and with a greater mask of respectability).
  • Digging Yourself Deeper: The episode on payday lenders avoids an Author Filibuster and instead allows its perpetrators, who (evidently due to a colossal Lack of Empathy and an inability to comprehend how their actions would play to others) allowed the filmmakers a tremendous degree of access, to do this to themselves.
  • Genius Ditz: Alongside The Barnum, this is essentially how "The Confidence Man" treats Donald Trump: he's absolutely brilliant at marketing himself as a savvy businessman, but his actual business career was marked by repeated, massive failures and colossal debts, and he demonstrated ignorance about basic aspects of many of the areas of business he chose to involve himself in (e.g., casinos). The episode implies that this is his own fault due to his colossal overconfidence and willful ignorance - flaws which, the episode argues, affect most aspects of his life. In short, it's implied that his media savvy may be his only significant skill.
  • Greed: The central focus of the series, natch.
  • Hitler Ate Sugar: In the VW episode, Gibney mentions that bringing up Hitler is always a cheap shot, but it is an undeniable fact that Hitler jump-started Volkswagen as a company.
  • Insufferable Genius: Hard N Ox's portrayal of longtime Volkswagen Chairman Dr. Ferdinand Piech. Piech was genuinely a brilliant businessman who transformed Volkswagen from a stodgy (and nearly bankrupt) manufacturer of economy cars to one of the biggest and most innovative car companies that was widely regarded as an industry leader by the mid-2000s. However, Piech was as tyrannical as he was ambitious and his hardline, aggressive methods became infused in Volkswagen's corporate culture. The show suggests that this culture was the main culprit behind the emissions cheating rather than any one individual and thus while Piech has never been personally implemented in the scandal, he bears some responsibility for it.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Investigative journalists play major parts in uncovering corporate malfeasance in at least a couple of the stories. Even when professional journalists aren't the central focus, the people who uncover the malfeasance may be essentially performing the role of journalists: see Fahmi Quadir and her fellow short sellers in "Drug Short" (see also Private Detective below).
  • Karma Houdini: Unfortunately, the fate of most of the companies, who receive relatively light punishments in comparision to their crimes.
    • Most notably, HSBC was basically given a slap on the wrist and a fine worth "five weeks profit" for actively aiding Mexican drug cartels, who kill thousands of innocent every year. The episode really hammers in the injustice by showing us the statistics for how many people are sent to jail for having drugs or killed by cartels and overdoses.
  • Lack of Empathy: A common thread for many of the perpetrators. A particularly notable example is the payday loanshark complaining about having had his assets seized by the U.S. government, completely missing the point that this is literally exactly what his business model was doing to millions of other people. After seeing this demonstrated firsthand, viewers are almost certain to see this outcome as a perfect example of Laser-Guided Karma.
  • Morality Kitchen Sink: Some episodes have clear villains and heroes (while it depicts some morally grey individuals, few people will come out of the payday loan episode with anything less than complete loathing for payday lending companies and outrage on the behalves of those they swindled), while others tend more towards Grey-and-Gray Morality (in the maple syrup episode, the Federation's defenders compellingly argue that it has drastically raised the profitability of the maple syrup industry as a whole while likewise reducing maple farmers' bankruptcy rates, while its detractors provide similarly convincing arguments that it incurs outright draconian penalties against those who flaunt it, that it is a monopoly, and that it is a serious threat to individual freedoms).
  • Never My Fault: Another common thread among perpetrators. The payday lenders claim, among other things, that their business practices were standard practice for the industry, as though exonerates them rather than serving as an indictment of the entire industry.
  • Pride: A common flaw in this series. Trump explicitly states in a clip used in "The Confidence Man" that he doesn't think he needs to do any research to learn how to succeed in businesses like gambling; his subsequent bankruptcies seem almost inevitable.
  • Private Detective: "Drug Short" casts short sellers' work as something of a mixture of this, forensic accountancy, and investigative journalism. While an awful lot of other stock traders detest them, the episode convincingly suggests that they perform a valuable role in uncovering fraud in the global economy.
  • Pun-Based Title: "Hard NOx" is named for nitrogen oxides (NO and NO₂), the chemicals that were at the centre of the episode's central emissions fraud, as well as the colloquialism "hard knocks".
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Fahmi Quadir indicates in her interview that she has no plans to cash in her short sale on Valeant unless and until the company's stock plummets to zero. It's not explicitly stated how much her short sale would be worth, but it's a lot. (That said, she's hardly lacking for money overall.)
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: By contrast, a lot of perpetrators have this attitude. It's implied that most auto emissions fraud comes out of a cost-benefit analysis - they figure that even after the fines their actions will incur, it may still be cheaper to pay the fines than it would be to comply with the emissions standards for real.
  • Serious Business: Dear gods, maple syrup. Various activities in the industry are compared to the actions of a drug cartel, to the Mafia, to pimps. The thing is, after watching the episode, these don't even really come across as exaggerations, and they're not even original to the episode. People who live outside of Canada tend to underestimate how important maple syrup is to the country's identity (and especially Quebec's); it's considered rude to provide guests anything other than genuine maple syrup, for example, and after all, the maple leaf is literally on the country's flag. The episode derives a lot of humour from how seriously it's taken in Canada, but also has serious points underneath the humour.
  • Show, Don't Tell: To a certain extent, as the documentarians generally don't actually opine on the subjects at all - the opining is almost exclusively reserved for the interview subjects. Of course, this doesn't mean viewers aren't likely to come away from various episodes with certain opinions, but Author Filibuster is averted. A lot of episodes barely even feature any narration. Gibney's "Hard NOx" is an exception; he mentions near the start of the episode how furious he was to discover Volkswagen's emissions cheating (particularly since he had owned one of the diesel cars that they had advertised as being clean), but overall, after the first ten or fifteen minutes, he mostly sticks to outlining the facts as they are known.
  • Smug Snake: Virtually every perpetrator comes across as a real-world example of this trope - the Valeant CEOs, the payday lenders, and for that matter Trump to a rather large extent, as his overconfidence about his business ventures seems to have been directly responsible for many of their failures.
  • Spotting the Thread: A lot of these scams were uncovered largely because of intrepid investigators who saw something that seemed slightly off and kept digging.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The payday loan episode says within the body of the episode that a trial is pending for some of the perpetrators; the outcome of the trial is mentioned in a brief caption at the end of the episode. The explanation for this is likely that, because the verdict was rendered in January 2018 (shortly before the release of the series), the episode was probably already fully edited and there wouldn't have been time to recut it before the release date, which is usually set months in advance.