Netflix UK film review: The Tinder Swindler
Helen Archer | On 15, Feb 2022
Netflix’s new hit documentary seems to speak to a moment in our culture. Scammers are the topic du jour. Narcissists lurk on social media, ready to pounce and exploit our vulnerabilities. Crowdfunding campaigns feed on our susceptibility to guilt and guile. Multi-level marketers insidiously ply their wares under different guises. Instagrammers Photoshop and filter their lives to perfection. Fake news abounds.
Directed by Felicity Morris – who produced Netflix’s Don’t F*ck with Cats – The Tinder Swindler tells the story of Shimon Hayut, who posed on dating apps as Simon Leviev, claiming to be the heir to, and CEO of, a billion dollar diamond company, LDD Diamonds. In this way, he conned his way into multiple women’s hearts and bank accounts. Here, three of his victims tell their stories of their experiences with a man who left them in vast amounts of debt.
The documentary is unofficially split into three distinct sections, as three different women tell the story of their encounters with Hayut. First up is Norwegian-born, London-dwelling Cecilie, the Disney-loving hopeless romantic, who was whisked off to Bulgaria on a private jet after her first date with Shimon, not heeding her friends’ warnings that she could be kidnapped or worse. Blown away by his apparent wealth – and it must be noted that this is quite a different Tinder from the one familiar to most of us, with its list of potential paramours flashing Rolexes on yachts in far-flung places – she was quickly charmed into believing his fairy tale. But, fairly swiftly, she found herself instead in the middle of a nightmare, as Shimon fed her dark fantasies about how his life was in danger thanks to his family’s enemies, and the only way to ensure his safety was by taking money out on credit cards to fund his security.
When it became clear that her money had run out, Shimon started leaving threatening messages on her mother’s phone. Cecilie says she considered suicide and admitted herself to a psychiatric when she became a danger to herself. Undeterred, Shimon started targeting his next victim, whom he had been laying the groundwork with for some time. Like Cecilie, he met Pernilla through Tinder, and although no romance developed, they formed what Pernilla thought was a strong friendship, summering in Europe together, unbeknown to her on Cecilie’s borrowed dime. When that ran out, Shimon told the same story of violent enemies and persuaded Pernilla to start “lending” him money.
Meanwhile, the scales had fallen from Cecilie’s eyes and she called in American Express to tell them everything, before going to a Norwegian newspaper to expose him. Their relationship is laid bare to the investigative journalists via the numerous WhatsApp texts, videos, audio, and photos, many of which are shown in the documentary to create an an anatomy of their relationship. When the newspaper printed their story about the conman, it went viral – and tipped off the third and final subject of the documentary, Ayleen. On finding out that the man she had been dating for over a year is nothing more than a crook, she exacts her revenge slowly, first by attempting to recover some of the money he owed her by taking the last of his possessions and then by tipping off authorities to his whereabouts.
Although this story is told slickly and stylishly, it does leave the viewer with many an unanswered question. Shimon refused to take part in the documentary, but there are other bit-part players from whom it would have been fascinating to hear. Questions linger about his ever-present “bodyguard”, his business partner, and perhaps most intriguingly the ex who accompanied Cecilie to Bulgaria with a small child Shimon claimed was their son. Meanwhile, the very real Leviev family, whose diamond business Shimon pretended to be CEO of, to the point of putting Cecilie on its payroll, have been mysteriously silent about the whole affair.
Perhaps unavoidably, the documentary almost invites victim-blaming, even as it attempts to preempt such accusations of its subjects by confronting the matter head-on. The women interviewed here have had to face negative reactions after their stories hit the headlines and they talk about how upsetting it is. Where this documentary fails them – and its viewers – is by not directly addressing the research done into narcissistic abusers, the methods they use to inveigle their way into people’s lives, and the difficulties in cutting them off. There are no experts here to contextualise things and the viewer is left to do the work.
While it is a flash, hip documentary in the typical Netflix style, The Tinder Swindler plays out on a surface level, perhaps knowing the story is outrageous enough to speak for itself. The gaping holes in the narrative will be infuriating for many, although it does open up the possibility of a sequel. In the meantime, such is the way of the modern world that the participants have opened a crowdfunding campaign in an effort to recoup some of the money they lost to the scam, while an infinite number of fake Instagram accounts have been activated in Shimon’s name. It leaves you weary of the current culture, and leery at the thought of finding anything but deceptive dissembling online.