Or, in the case of “Drug Short,” one of the best episodes in the bunch, what corporations are doing is totally legal. Directed by Erin Lee Carr, it follows the rise and fall of Valeant Pharmaceuticals, led by a CEO who declared that his mission wasn’t to make new drugs but simply to “create stockholder value.” In Carr’s hands, what could be a predictable story about corporate overreach becomes a gripping entrée into Wall Street excess, studded with compelling characters. There’s the Valeant CEO, a slovenly Uncle Pennybags who hoovers up companies and raises the price of one life-saving drug to almost $300,000 a year. And there’s Fahmi Quadir, a wunderkind in short selling who spends all of her evenings combing through Valeant’s history to try and bring it down.
These narratives differ in their various approaches and styles, but they’re essentially built around the same theme: simple greed. Stevens’s look at Trump’s empire is different. Not because the tactics are distinct (Trump University is portrayed as its own, particularly noxious kind of scam on impoverished people with dreams of wealth), or because the Trump Organization hasn’t operated in similarly gray (or even black) ethical areas. Rather, Stevens argues, it’s because Trump’s confidence trick doesn’t involve condos, or steaks, or airlines, or casinos. The con is Trump himself. For the last five decades, he’s sold himself as something he’s not: a billionaire many times over, a swaggering lothario, a casino magnate, a tycoon. After disastrous bankruptcies in the 1990s, Stevens notes, Trump’s businesses went quiet. Trump merely participated in the pageantry of his role as America’s most unblushing magnate, filming a Pizza Hut ad with his ex-wife Ivana in 1995 and a McDonald’s spot with Grimace in 2002.
Before the premiere of The Apprentice in 2004, the journalist Timothy O’Brien observes in the episode, Trump was mostly sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. That show, “The Confidence Man” argues, pulled off the greatest con of all when it persuaded large swathes of the American public that Trump was a titan of industry and a genius dealmaker rather than a simple forerunner to Kim Kardashian. Stevens interviews two Apprentice producers who reveal how much of the show was a false construction, including the Trump Organization set, which was built because the real office was too shabby, too small, and smelled funky. The series was a hit, though, and Trump’s brand was renewed.
Dirty Money makes a convincing case that without The Apprentice, President Trump would never have happened. But his presidency also seems to encapsulate a phenomenon the six documentaries are trying to unpack, where, given enough status and a requisite lack of shame, moral and financial bankruptcy can be shaken off in an instant. The quest for capital goes on, ad infinitum. Sporadic adjustments (the conviction of Scott Tucker, the tanking of Valeant) are momentary blips rather than paradigm shifts. When it comes to money, some companies—and some people—are just too much to contain.