Tales of Obscene Wealth on Netflix

While you can't work, entertain yourself with Dirty Money's tales of ill-gotten gains.

A particularly hard part of this quarantine comes from an essential loss of American identity: If you’re not working, and you can’t buy things, who are you? Or, as Kilian Colin puts it in season 2’s first episode of the Netflix series Dirty Money, “Your job is your life here in the U.S.”

The series of six hour-long investigations is co-produced by Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side and scads of other muckraking docs. Colin is an interviewee in the episode titled “The Wagon Wheel.” He was one of the original whistleblowers in the Wells-Fargo scandal about the “cross-selling” of phony accounts that led to an unprecedented $17.5 million fine for the bank’s then-CEO John Stumpf.  

Colin was an Iraqi immigrant turned bank teller, lured into the job with the usual personnel-department zen koans. (“We don’t care about what you know, we want to know what you care about!”). Once he was in for his low wage gig, he found out that the real motto was “8 makes great” — tellers needed to get 8 new accounts opened a day.

Fellow whistleblower Yesenia Guitron at the St. Helena branch in Napa County, calculated that, in a town of 5,000 and a bank with several tellers, they’d run out of citizens in a short time. She was sent out to recruit grape-pickers from the local labor exchange. Guitron says her man ager told her to “unbutton your shirt and shake your skirt.”

Director Dan Krauss tells of the updraft of multiple accounts created for elders, students, and people who didn’t speak English very well. The new accounts pumped up Wells Fargo’s stocks, thus beguiling the hosts of Mad Money-style shows. One host calls Stumpf the executive with whom he most wanted to knock down a fine Pilsner.

The story is told deftly. It explains a complicated grift with pointed visuals; and includes wrenching personal stories; a clip of the song “The Wells Fargo Wagon” from the 1962 musical The Music Man; and an interview with The Wall Street Journal‘s Emily Glazier, who did some 250 articles on the bank. And Krauss gives Woody Guthrie the last word.

Other Dirty Money episodes deal with the ecological costs of gold mining, the evils of the elder guardianship system, and the sticky fingers of the former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak. The wittily titled “Slumlord Millionaire” by Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme is about Jared Kushner. The son in law also rises. Jared Kushner came from a family of New Jersey developers and is now an adviser on numerous U.S. policies. The Kurshner’s dirty laundry was thoroughly dug through by the New York press — Jared’s dad Charles played the badger game, going to prison for trying to set up a relative with compromising pics with an expensive prostitute. 

Jared’s Damien-like smoothness suited Ivanka Trump, and since their marriage his fortunes have increased. Still, the 666 5th Avenue building that sunk him into a swamp of debt required investments from Russians and Persian Gulf potentates, creating a situation that looks awfully like influence-peddling. Bearing this tower in mind, Jared’s illegal business practices as a landlord prove Ambrose Bierce’s comment that the hovel is “the fruit of a flower called the Palace.”

 Kushner’s real character is shown in stories of his NYC buildings, where he pressures rent-controlled NYC tenants with horrible neglect and round the clock construction crews.

 Through shell companies, Kushner owns dozens of edge-city Maryland crapshacks. Pro Publica‘s Alec MacGillis and The Baltimore Sun‘s Doug Donovan investigated the victims of Jared’s slumlordery. Two are a couple of Trump supporters, despite it all: “He takes care of business!”

For a time, Kushner owned the clubby NYC newspaper The Observer, so there’s a visit with the paper’s brilliant front-page caricaturist Drew Friedman. The illustrator tells of a startlingly insensitive snub by Kushner, and revenges himself with a succinct cartoon about the devil’s bargain this young developer made.

Donovan compares Kushner’s business practices to the Goodfellas code in which every excuse for money shortage is answered by “FU, pay me.” For some reason, Kushner refused interviews; his underlings have to excuse what they did as the importance of their “fiduciary duty.” That’s today’s answer to “We were only following orders.”


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