2019 is shaping up to be the year of the scam. This is not a new idea; scams have been on the mind since at least January, when the mother of all Schadenfreude cannons, Fyre Festival, was memorialized in two warring (and ethically questionable) Netflix and Hulu documentaries. I myself arrived at this conclusion around then, when I created a Google Doc (“Scammed”) to document a single week in which Fyre content competed for space with the Caroline Calloway influencer meltdown, the exposé on bestselling author and serial liar Dan Mallory, and a special series of the Atlantic in which 50 articles catalogued the president’s gaslighting of America.
Still, it preceded a deluge of scam content this year: The Inventor, an HBO documentary on Elizabeth Holmes and her fraudulent Silicon Valley “unicorn”, Theranos; the Dropout, a hit podcast also on Holmes (and her baffling, deliberately lowered voice); the trial of the New York socialite scammer Anna Delvey; and, of course, the scam inferno that was “Operation Varsity Blues”, the college admissions fraud. The movie Hustlers, starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu as strippers who steal from wealthy clients to escape Recession-era poverty, opens next month. (The movie is based on a real story, from 2015, by the journalist Jessica Pressler). And last week, Showtime premiered On Becoming A God in Central Florida, a fictional TV series pitting a scrappy young mother, Krystal, against – or, as it emerges, with – the multi-level marketing scheme sandbagging her in debt in a 1992 “Orlando-adjacent” suburb. (Jane Marie’s 2018 podcast The Dream, a full breakdown of multi-level marketing schemes, has also surged in popularity this year).
The series seems poised to gain an outsized toehold in the swamped cultural conversation, in large part for casting a magnetic Kirsten Dunst, a long-underrated older millennial icon, as Krystal. But it’s also perfectly timed for this moment, a time when – across media, genre, and sympathy for the perpetrator – audiences are hungry for and receptive of stories betting on America’s number one way to get rich quick: scam.
If 2019 is a year of peak scam content – with everything from podcasts to TV shows to documentaries catching the zeitgeist – it’s because it rests on a foundational series of cons percolating for years. Scamming is, as Jia Tolentino writes in her recent bestselling book Trick Mirror, “the quintessential American ethos”. To grow up in this country, particularly as someone born during or after the 1980s deregulation of Wall Street, is to learn that “one of the best bids a person can make for financial safety in America is to get really good at exploiting other people”.
In an essay called The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams, Tolentino outlines how millennials came of age as upward mobility became a game of snakes and ladders underlaid by scamming – “the abuse of trust for profit”. The financial crisis, propelled by recklessly profitable lending, kneecapped the quintessentially American aspiration of homeownership; student debt ballooned as wages stagnated; the real product of social media, it turned out, was you; a blustering, transparently racist business failure was elected president. Confidence coupled with total impunity, it seemed, was the quickest way to win.
Scamming, Tolentino argues, has become “all-encompassing”; indeed, scamming, and our fascination with those brazen enough – some would say valiant enough – to pull it off, has seeped into a wide range of this year’s cultural fascinations. A hit podcast, some documentaries, feverish coverage of the parents looped in the college admissions scandal and a Showtime series set in 1992 may seem like disparate cultural products to connect, given their audiences and relation to truth. But all hinge on the allure of confidence, whether admirably plucky (Krystal) or stupendously undaunted (Holmes), and the fine line between this country’s valorization of money and going too far for it. And all engage audiences, on some level, by connecting to a cult of celebrity – it is, after all, Kirsten Dunst playing Krystal and Instagram supermodels who sold the Fyre Festival; Holmes was on many a magazine cover. In other words, they all float in the same water.
Notably, many of these scammers – or, at least, the work focusing on them – are women. And in the cases of Hustlers and On Becoming a God, women who turn to scamming as a means of survival, after legitimate avenues dead-end in a country stacked against them. It’s a crucial distinction, one necessary to carry their story as protagonists, and a reminder that not all scams are created equal. Some fall, some push; no clear-eyed person would see the scam of elite families paying an Ivy League coach to forge their child’s athletic participation for admittance (soon to be adapted into a Lifetime movie!) and Kirsten Dunst’s Krystal selling MLM merchandise to fend off her husband’s mountain of debt as the same sin. But the audacity of taking the risks, of on some level believing you’re special enough to deviate from the rules, to think you may just get away with it, is similarly, endlessly compelling. And given today’s context, it doesn’t seem like our appetite for scam stories – the hope of deconstructing them, the thrill of marveling at their trajectories – will end any time soon.