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Fraudsters – TV miniseries review


The Dropout | Super Pumped | WeCrashed | Inventing Anna

There has been a spate of recent TV miniseries dedicated to the real-life stories of what I would consider ‘failures’ by high-profile ‘start-ups’ aka social-media and technology entrepreneurs and con artists. 

Having watched a few of these, the spotlight seems to have been shone on charismatic and driven characters whose extreme ambition is underpinned by a narcissism that has led them to spectacular falls from grace. We see delusional over-achievers being able to command a faithful following of staff and supporters, and so easily able to hoodwink their unwitting investors out of funds to the tune of millions, even billions, of dollars.  

The common thread through all these exposés—told with some liberties taken with actual details (which unfortunately seems to be the trend with these stories inspired by real events)—makes us come to the realisation that many people are unsuspecting and too willing to go along with a scam. And especially so, if it means becoming associated with the latest big commercial thing from which one might profit from its future financial rewards, even if it means being blinded by the lack of substance and discernment.

In each of these stories we see luminary individuals determined to ‘change the world’ and make it a better place, for some at least.  And yet when it comes to how they get there, ethics, social decency and fair-play are often thrown out the door because these are inconvenient barriers to them achieving their various seemingly altruistic personal and business goals.  

We see the key charismatic founders and so-called leaders develop very unhealthy narcissistic personalities with a cult-like following amongst staff and investors who somehow fail to see through their lack of substance, integrity, discipline with a perpetual habit of exaggerating things or constantly lying, in the guise of a false confidence and positivism. 

The higher and faster they rise, the harder they fall

One can only relate this to other examples of personality cults, in which the vision and preaching of a political or religious leader—never to be challenged or questioned about their intentions—and you see this happening everywhere. The latest scandal closer to home for us being the much publicised fall of Hillsong Church founder, Brian Houston who was finally removed from his leadership position by an embarrassed and disgruntled board. Like these fraudsters, he had sold a product that would offer indeterminate and unachievable outcomes while reaping from the financial success of the gullibility of a mesmerised mass following.  If the scam of religion and politics are anything to go by, one might be lulled into thinking that you can fool a lot of people for a while, but the house of cards can come crashing down quite quickly when the illusion is finally exposed.

1. The Dropout

The Dropout
Protaganist: Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, played by Amanda Seyfried (left)
Place: Palo Alto, California

Vision: Technological medical transformation
Outcome: Elizabeth Holmes convicted of wire fraud and is currently awaiting sentencing

This 8-part TV miniseries is a dramatisation of a biotechnology entrepreneur’s rise and fall, from her notorious dropping out from Stanford in her second year to pursue her dream of revolutionising the healthcare industry. Its title is taken from a 2019 documentary and podcast about Holmes, covering interviews and deposition tapes of key figures, including key whistleblower Tyler Shultz, grandson of board member George Shultz who probably regretted getting his grandson a job in Theranos. 

Through the episodes we see Elizabeth Holmes single-mindedly trying to realise a premise of developing a product and service which would provide a diagnosis of a person’s medical status from a single drop of blood. From the onset, when she was developing her vision and the selling proposition for her company, we are reminded through a scene between Holmes and one of her professors at Stanford that they were still at least 10 years away from delivering the technology she was planning to use. She defiantly thought otherwise.

And so, as the company continued to build its reputation and its rapidly escalating valuation, prematurely earning Holmes huge accolades as a successful female entrepreneur, they were secretly and predictably running into trouble in the labs. They mislead investors wanting to see tangible results and when an overdue prototype couldn’t quite be delivered, they started to withdraw into secrecy, conveniently quoting the need for privacy in order to guard their unique intellectual property so as to avoid being exposed.

An interesting aspect of the story is Holmes shift in behaviour, including the way she spoke and dressed in order to cultivate an air of respectability. She lowered her voice (as did Maggie Thatcher) and switched to her signature black turtle-neck uniform (in homage to Steve Jobs) as cosmetic adjustments to her personal brand.

Stephen Fry turns in a small but notable turn as Ian Gibbons, one of the pioneering scientists in Theranos. William C Macy plays Richard Fuisz, a family neighbour in the same field whom she manages to offend to the extent he is determined to ruin her. Sam Waterson plays the stubborn George Shultz who is so enamoured (and taunted by her promise of substantial financial gain) that he loses his objectivity and disowns his own grandson for daring to point out her fraud which he uncovers while working in the company. 

A critical “bombshell article” by John Carreyrou, published by the Wall Street Journal in 2015, was instrumental in exposing the fraud, with the help of employee whistleblowers such as Tyler Shultz. The emperor’s new clothes were laid bare and the dream run of a promising and medically revolutionary start-up came crumbling down.

By 2018, Holmes and her partner in crime, Theranos’ former president and Chief Operating Officer Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, were both charged with taking more than $700m from investors while advertising a false product. The lack of a conscience and their greed for money and success allowed Holmes and Balwani to fool so many people, mislead and mistreat so many employees (they had more than 800 staff at its height) and ruin so many lives.

Holmes is characterised as a complex person, shaped by her family upbringing (with determination to succeed after her father’s “failed” career and competition with siblings), a stoicism instilled by a strong mother after she reveals to the latter her sexual attack while at college, and her reportedly abusive relationship with her older mentor-partner Sunny whose relationship she kept from her colleagues.

In the end, the person who single-handedly raised the bar and possibility for female entrepreneurs has now been accused of creating the biggest stigma and reinforcement of negative expectations for her gender, especially in the science and health care field, where they are stereotypically seen as out of depth. What a shame!

2. Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber

Super Pumped
Protaganist: Travis Kalanick, “co-founder” and CEO of Uber, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (left)
Place: San Francisco, California

Vision: Transportation mode disruption using a digital mobile app
Outcome: Travis Kalnick eventually ousted as CEO by the company’s boad in a desperate move to keep the company going after a series of media exposés shed light on unscrupulous practices and a culture of toxic masculinity which he engendered as head honcho

This 8-part miniseries, based on the book of the same name by Mike Isaac, chronicles the meteorite rise of Uber’s co-founder Travis Kalanick, culminating in his removal as CEO by the board.

This was one disturbing taxi ride through some revelations encapsulating the highs and lows of Silicon Valley. Throughout the gripping episodes we see the grit and determination of a start-up to not just succeed at whatever cost but to emerge as a monopoly, even if it meant employing unscrupulous programming practices to out-manoeuvre regulators, competitors, customers, employees and even their own driver members. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a convincingly driven and uncompromising Kalanick, along with the ever dashing Kyle Chandler as Bill Gurley, his mentor or rather consigliere from the venture capital firm of Benchmark, who nurtured him as CEO but was eventually responsible for pulling the plug on Kalanick’s stunning rise and forced resignation in 2017. Uma Thurman plays Arianna Huffington, another one of Kalanick’s confidants and close allies, who initially protects him but also concedes with his eventual removal as CEO. Elizabeth Shue plays Kalanick’s supportive mother Bonnie.

In this series, we see another rise and fall of a cult-like business leader who is well-documented for having been abrasive and ruthless in his need to win at all costs. Kalanick would eventually be forced to resign from the board in 2019 after many more battles for leadership and control of a company that made him rich but not necessarily those that got in his way. 

If nothing else, watching the series has convinced us to once-and-for-all delete our Uber and Uber Eats apps on our mobile phones!

3. WeCrashed

Protaganists: Adam Neumann, found of WeWork and his wife Rebekah Paltrow, both played by Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway (left) 
Place: New York City, New York

Vision: To provide a holistic approach to living and to revolutionise the workplace as a community
Outcome:  Adam Neumann ousted as CEO by the board when an intended IPO exercise fell over with hitherto unknown misuse of funds and an unrealisable business plan

This eight-part series which dramatises the collapse of the WeWork empire (well, once regarded as one) was the most exasperating of the lot. 

From the get-go we see how a man so intoxicated in his own belief used his ‘aura’ of possibility and confidence to seduce his investors into buying into his vision for a better world. This vision was based on his ideas of community and togetherness, underpinned by his own youthful experience living in a kibbutz in Israel. Sadly, those ideals and the by-products which he milked in the sense of euphoric mood-building, team-building (often fuelled by free-flowing alcohol, drugs and sex) didn’t quite translate into a business outcome. Every time the illusionary bubble was on the verge of bursting, he would convince some new source of financing to pump in more funds to rescue an otherwise wanky, over-valued and unsustainable proposition. 

Led by such a non-specific and outrageously holistic vision as “We elevate the world’s consciousness”, they tried to somehow pass off what was essentially a shared creative real-estate business as a techno start-up in order to appeal to venture capitalists eager to ride the digital disruptor wave, and then audaciously wanted to move into education and other peripheral industries under this broad and wanky umbrella. The venture into running schools came about because Rebekah wasn’t happy with the way their children’s expensive private schools weren’t giving her children the right level of positivity and so they branched out into the next related sub-brands WeGrow WeLive, etc. 

It was interesting to note that Rebekah Paltrow is in fact the cousin of actress Gwyneth Paltrow and to see her constantly compare herself to her accomplished cousin. At one point she decides to elevate her status in WeWork to that of Chief Brand and Impact Officer, bumping off a friend Elisha Kennedy (played by “Ugly Betty” America Ferrera) whom she was jealous of getting a job by her husband. It was astounding to see how she believed in her abilities and rewarded herself for it, with so little corporate experience (other than a brief stint in a Wall Street trading company after graduation). Unsurprisingly, the prospectus she prepared for the company’s S-1 filing for public listing was so lacking in substance that it was ridiculed by the industry and the IPO they sought in 2019 was delayed as a result.

Part of the social fraud and hypocrisy revealed along the way was how the founders themselves enjoyed lavish lifestyles and rewarded themselves without hesitation, while expecting their cult-like following of adulating staff to remain underpaid, working long hours and to thrive on company stocks which came with the promise of huge financial value, if and when the company eventually turned a profit.

Thanks to powerful but aptly annoying performances from Leto and Hathaway, by about the fifth or sixth episode you can’t help but root for the obnoxious couple to fail. Such is the scale of unchecked hypocrisy and delusionary belief in themselves and their airy-fairy ‘vision’ that your only motivation by this point is to keep watching just to see how quick and hard their inevitable fall from grace would occur. 

4. Inventing Anna

Inventing Anna
Protaganist: Anna Sorokin aka Anna Delvey, played by Julia Farner (left) 
Place: New York City, New York

Vision: To set up the Anna Delvey Foundation, or rather an exclusive club where art and style rule the day for members who want to appreciate the better things in life
Outcome: Anna Sorokin convicted on charges of grand larceny and theft of services in an April 2019 trial and sentenced to 12 years in prison

The nine-part dramatisation traces the rise and fall of the Instagram-legendary Russian-born German ‘heiress’ Anna Delvey (aka Anna Sorokin), a con artist and fraudster as she was eventually exposed and convicted of grand larceny in 2019, having deceived banks, hotels and acquaintances.

This Netflix TV series is based by an article by investigative journalist Jessica Pressler by published in the biweekly New York Magazine. So this account focuses on Pressler’s perspective, as she uncovers and reports on the details Delvey’s story for which she was already incarcerated for and would get financial proceeds for telling her side of the tale. There is also another account told by Anna’s friend Rachel DeLoache Williams, who published a book of her side of the story. Never mind the fraud, if you can make more money off it then by all means do so! 

The narrative shifts back and forth in time as we uncover how Anna almost came close to her ‘vision’ of setting up her ‘Anna Delvey Foundation’ by constantly lying and fooling everyone around her into helping her achieve her vision. What was amazing to watch was how people would embrace not just her authority on art and design but were also willing to accept her dubious background without question and that she would have commanded such respect by virtue of who she seemed to know alone.

It was ‘impressive’ that she would manage to almost secure the lease for the entire 6-storey Church Missions House, a heritage building also known as 281 Park Avenue South, with the help of luminaries such as Urs Fischer, Damien Hurst, Jeff Koons and Tracey Emin, with planning assistance received from the son of architect Santiago Calatrava.

Through various events and escapades, e.g., a trip to Morocco with her “friends”, a shortlived fling with a boyfriend who gave TED talks, her stay at the lavish hotel (where she would tip the staff generously to help insert her with their own connections into the in-crowd) and the journalists trip to Germany to meet her real family and her social origins, we see how this person treated people and invented her persona in order to portray someone of means, flair and vision. What a hoot!

As the trailer and opening credits of each episode warn you, “this story is completely true, except for the parts that are totally made up”. You then have to expect the many embellishments made for dramatic effect.

For her crimes, Anna Sorokin was arrested in 2017 and sentenced to 12 years in state prison in 2018, after a notorious trial in which she refused to enter the courtroom in prison-issued clothes until the judge who had been kept waiting eventually forced her to appear. She was subsequently incarcerated at the Albion Correctional Facility. Six weeks after her release on parole in March 2021, she was taken back into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for overstaying her visa, and is currently awaiting deportation to Germany which she is legally contesting. Caught again!

Relevant Links

1. The Dropout

Official trailer

Other reviews

2. Super Pumped

Official trailer

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3. WeCrashed

Official trailer

Other reviews

4. Inventing Anna

Official trailer

Other reviews