Dirty Money. It’s a phrase that rolls off the tongue with familiar disgust, because as far back as one can remember, there’s been an inequality at the heart of society, and those nearer the top are presumed to do nefarious deeds to star there – a presumption that has been borne out time and time again. It’s no surprise, then, that a TV show with that title should come out swinging from the little guy up, and Netflix’s documentary series succeeds precisely because of that personal punch.
And who better to head the project up than Alex Gibney? From Mea Maxima Culpa to Going Clear, Gibney is one of the best investigative filmmakers around, with a drive to tackle major issues that goes all the way back to 2005’s Enron expose, The Smartest Guys in the Room. He’s at the helm of Dirty Money’s opener, and it’s a corker, as he delves into the shady dealings of Volkswagen, which famously faked its emissions tests in 2015, hoping to make its cars seem less polluting than they were.
It’s a deceit that only becomes more shockingly cynical as time goes on. Not only was the company trying to shirk on its duties, but it was only cashing in on the well-meaning passion of the eco-friendly movement, exploiting noble attempts to save the planet for the sake of a part that could save them a few hundred bucks. The result put lives at risk, injecting 40 times the claimed amount of the dangerous NOx gas into the air in 11 million vehicles. Shots of Gibney driving (in his own VW, no less) add a immediate sense of human cost for the con – one that gets added clout by the meticulous charting of every step of the scandal by the typically thorough director. Going back decades to VW’s origins, from The Beetles to Hitler, it’s as much a specific tale as it is a global one, which shines a scathing headlight on the auto industry itself, and the kind of corporate environment that bred such a careless attitude towards consumers.
For such an environment to thrive, of course, it needs to be given room and space to grow, and Dirty Money traces the connections between power and corporations, as the law bends around those doing the dodgy. Regulators overlook the Big Pharma practices that prey on patients’ need for life-saving drugs. Payday lenders openly made profit on hidden charges and impossibly high rates. The series is at its best when it manages to connect that very top of the power ladder with the people on its lowest rung: director Kristi Jacobson (who helmed maximum security prison doc Solitary) strikes a chord when she investigates the connection between HSBC and Mexican drug cartels, putting an unsettling new face on a familiar presence on your own high street.
Episodes titles, such as Cartel Bank, carry that outrage on their sleeves, and the show doubles down on the anger, allowing the runtimes of each instalment to vary to fit the material: the best chapters are the bookends, which run to a feature-worthy length of just under 80 minutes. The finale feels like a climax worth building to, as it scrutinises the US President himself, Donald Trump.
Simply called, with a telling use of the definite pronoun, The Confidence Man, it traces back Trump Inc.’s rise to major power – a rise that’s fuelled by one man’s blustering hot air. Fisher Stevens, who previously made environmental hard-hitter Before the Flood and the moving Carrie Fish portrait Bright Lights, is adept at getting intimate access to footage you haven’t seen, even though you’ll be expecting all of it: this is the story of riches to riches, while the rest of the world goes to rags, as Trump moves from failed venture to failed venture, leaving others out of pocket or owed money. Trump Steaks and the Taj Mahal have been taken to pieces in the media already, but Stevens finds the added sting of a recent winner of The Apprentice, who exposes the culture of Trump’s organisation as far from the pomp and smarts presented by the reality TV show – itself a sham that’s gleefully torn down by some of the behind-the-scenes crew.
A constant stream of PR and media manipulation managed to keep that boom-and-bust brand going for decades, forever blowing up the size of Trump’s fortune from its probable millions to unsubstantiated billions – an illusion that he himself fought to maintain on numerous TV appearances. The result is a hackle-raising pay-off to a urgent, important series about the oft-unchecked relationship between money and power – and what better proof of the enduring link between the two than a reminder that The Confidence Man is now in the White House?
Dirty Money is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.