A critique of Netflix’s ‘Dirty Money’

I’m currently on vacation in Edinburgh which has meant a lot of free time on my hands. To kill the time, I decided to check out the new Netflix docu-series ‘Dirty Money’.

Based on the series’ trailer, I had expected a hard hitting documentary exposing the interconnected drives that push corporations and business actors to perpetrate acts of corruption, greed, an involvement with crime. What I found though, was a disjointed and seemingly confused collection of events with no analysis whatsoever.

Now some might say that a documentary is not supposed to analyse, but only provide a picture of the world as is. But even if we were to use this as the yardstick, the series remains, as described above, disjointed and confused.

The content

The series starts out with what I think is its strongest episode, an investigation into the malpractices of VW and their use of ‘cheat devices’ that give erroneous emission (COx) readings. This is the only episode in which the director is also the narrator and makes an appearance in the documentary itself as a disgruntled customer having been duped by the VW’s advertising of clean diesel cars.

This involvement adds a level of authenticity and immediate impact to the episode not found in subsequent ones. The episode starts with an investigation of VW’s deceitful practices in the US, but by the end of the episode the documentary reveals that ‘cheat devises’ are implemented en mass in Europe to circumvent climate change laws. Not only that, but local European governments were turning a blind eye to this through a legalistic loophole and in the fears of acting against national interest in legally punishing national car manufacturers.

This episode was incredibly well done, as a critique of our current mode of production — capitalism, it was able to make clear connections between malpractices of an entire industry and the complicity of governments in this malpractice out of fear of negatively damaging “national interest” with the full knowledge that protecting these economic national interests is leading to the premature death of its own citizens through smog and COx inhalation.

Unfortunately, the rest of the docu-series failed to live up to this entertaining and damning criticism. In the episodes that followed 5 more organizations were investigated. The second episode followed the story of a payday loan company (companies that provide small loans that are paid back through direct deposits tied to your paycheck)charging exorbitant fees and a misleading pay structure. The third explores pharmaceutical price gouging. What these episodes hold in common is that the practices of either company seem to be within legal bounds.

The fourth episode dealt with HSBC and their blatant non-compliance to Anti-Money Laundering (AML) laws. It was found that over several decades, HSBC was assisting in moving money for everything from drug cartels to terrorist organizations. Upon discovery, HSBC promised to fix the problem, hired some auditors to feign that work is being done, but continued to move money for “suspicious” clients. Eventually, HSBC was hit with a “large” fine — equal to 5 weeks of profit, and eventually all criminal charges were dropped.

These episodes were curious in that they seemed to shift the conclusion away from business itself to single out ‘bad apples’. In this way the docu-series covers up (perhaps unintentionally so) and presents a mistaken culprit in this kind of behavior — greed. By hinting at this as the common denominator the series misses the fact that its our institution of capitalistic competition that will always result in outbursts of unmitigated greed, that these individual instances of outburst are not due to bad corporate culture or excessive and aggressive market driven strategy, it is that they demonstrate the natural conclusion of our current capitalistic systems. They miss the mark by tricking us into normalizing this behaviour and dismissing it as part of human nature, as the worst infestation of the worst in society. This obfuscates the fact that the propensity for greed is at the core of the system itself, its the engine, and it’s an engine we have chosen and continue to choose to build our societies around.

The fifth episode took a really strange shift in tone with the Canadian Maple Syrup industry. Here the documentary completely moved away from its previous analysis where the culprit was always presented as an organization, and the victim as the general public. Instead, here we see a battle between a group of businesses, The Canadian Maple Syrup Syndicate, and individual maple syrup tappers who have been blocked (legally through the efforts of the Syndicate) from selling their product on the free market. This episode

The sixth and final episode investigated Donald Trump’s organization and exposes his bad businesses deals. It does so by presenting his career as a series of bangs and busts held together by a false image of confidence, an image that has helped him get into political office. This episode, presenting Donald Trump as the con man, seems to step away from the previous perpetrator/victim dichotomy altogether. And even though it presents nothing around the theme of the show, does a great job at elucidating Trumps rise to power and his dealings making it a definite worthwhile watch.

What could have been

I would like to think that Netflix, by ordering the episodes of the series the way they did were hinting at the inescapability of the capitalist system. That not only is it a system that will impact the unaware general public, but that it will also eventually consume business itself and eventually seep its way into every facet of our existence including government - a system built on greed self cannibalizing everything in its path. But I doubt this is true.

I don’t even think the term Capitalism was uttered throughout the entire series, not that this is the sole measure of the series worth, but I would say that this is indicative of the laziness of the series in refusing to follow the information and patterns they were investigating to the source. This is not to say that a documentary hasn’t done a good job until their conclusion are in line with my views on capitalism, but by avoiding even a constructive critique of lax laws and shoddy regulation the series protects the very thing it sets out to criticize leaving it as a superficial piece of monetary entertainment.

I hope that if Netflix decides to pursue a second season they step up their game, in the meantime, I would strongly advise you to watch Four Horsemen a UK documentary featuring “23 international thinkers, government advisors and Wall Street money-men break their silence and explain how to establish a moral and just society.”

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