Netflix's Dirty Money Exposes the Corporate Corruption Running the World

It’s no secret that our society is corrupt. Every night on the news, there’s a new politician indicted for bribes or a new corporate fraud exposed. Remember when HSBC was caught money laundering for murderous drug cartels? Or when Volkswagen was busted rigging their “clean” diesel cars to hide their noxious emissions? These days scandals come at such a rapid pace that they’re impossible to keep track of. A new documentary series on Netflix, Dirty Money, takes a necessary look at corporate fraud and greed by slowing down and taking long looks at a few scanalds you’ve probably heard about, but may have already forgotten.

The six episodes of Dirty Money cover some aspect of greed and corruption, but each has a different director and functions as stand-alone documentary. You can pick and choose which interest you. Emmy and Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney kicks off the series with the 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal. Other episodes cover the HSBC’s cartel connections, pharmaceutical price gouging, race car driver Scott Tucker’s payday loan racket, the sketchy business dealings of con-man-in-chief Donald Trump, and—in a bit of an outlier—a strange scandal involving Canadian maple syrup.

If you only have time for one, I’d recommend Erin Lee Carr’s illuminating look at pharmaceuticals price gouging. “Drug Short” opens with America’s most hated pharma bro Martin Shkreli being sent to jail. Justice served, right? Except, as the documentary points out, “If Martin [Shkreli] was the minnow in all this, then Valeant CEO Mike Pearson was the whale.” Under Pearson’s leadership, Valeant Pharmaceuticals slashed its research budget and focused entirely on buying up other companies’ medicines and then jacking up the prices. In once instance, a vital drug for people with a rare copper allergy went from $30 a month to $20,000 a month. As people handed over their life savings to stay alive, Valeant’s stock price soared.

The corrupt practices of Valeant Pharmaceuticals eventually catch up to the company, but nothing actually improves. Pearson is outed but he’s still a multi-millionaire, and the drug prices stay at their absurdly high levels because the company has so much debt they literally can’t lower them. "We didn't find anything they were doing which was illegal,” Senator Claire McCaskill says. “And that's the thing that's startling about this.”

The most entertaining episode is probably Fisher Stevens’s “The Confidence Man” about, you guessed it, Donald Trump. You probably know what the episode will cover: Trump’s history of bankruptcy and failed businesses, his scam university, and his general tendency to lie and cheat his way to the top. There’s nothing new here, but “The Confidence Man” is a good refresher on the president’s hucksterism and features engaging interviews with celebrities like Russell Simmons and Trump’s ex-business associates. When Stevens interviews a producer and editor from The Apprentice, they discuss how they initially thought people would take it as a joke: “How funny is it to have this washed-up, five-time bankruptcy guy” be the big executive on the show. (They also detail how they had to build a fake office for the TV show because Trump’s real offices were too small and shabby.) “We just didn’t know how many people would look at that and say, ‘That’s cool. That’s real,” Jonathon Braun says.

“No good deed goes unpunished,” convicted felon Scott Tucker whines after making hundreds of millions of dollars defrauding poor Americans. What Dirty Money shows is that when it comes to corporate fraud the opposite is true: too often no bad deed goes unrewarded.