Despite the damage that they cause, con artists are fascinating. The sheer audacity of these people… how ever did they think they would get away with their exploits?
No medium is better to examine and expose con artists than documentary film. Here we can look into their eyes and wonder… would we have been fooled?
Here are seven of my favourite documentaries that deal in deception.
Bart Layton’s The Imposter tells the story of Frederic Bourdin who, despite being a brown haired, brown eyed French Algerian in his twenties, convinced Spainish authorities that he was a 16 year old, blond haired, blue eyed missing boy from Texas called Nicholas Barclay.
However, he thought that his number was well and truly up when Nicholas’s sister Carey came from the US to meet him. To Bourdin’s surprise (and ours), she accepted him as Nicholas and as did most of her family.
What happens next truly has to be seen to be believed.
The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley
I first watched Alex Gibney’s documentary, The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley, on a flight to Hong Kong. I enjoyed it so much that, as soon as the credits rolled, I watched the film all over again.
In 2004, Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford to start a company that was going to revolutionise healthcare. In 2014, Theranos was valued at $9 billion, making Holmes - touted as “the next Steve Jobs" - the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world.
Just two years later, however, Theranos was cited as a “massive fraud” by the SEC, and its value was less than zero.
Using archive footage and interviews with Theranos employees and investors, Gibney explores the psychology of deception.
My Kid Could Paint That
Marla Olmstead became famous the world over for her abstract paintings, which were sold for hundreds and then thousands of dollars. Okay, so where’s the con you might ask. Well, Marla was just three years old.
Suspicions arose after a controversial segment on television programme 60 Minutes suggested that Marla hadn’t actually painted the paintings herself and that her father, Mark, was passing his work off as hers.
Director Amir Bar-Lev has incredible access to the family and you sense his struggle. He desperately wants to believe but there is no clear evidence to convince him... you see, Marla doesn’t like to paint on camera.
In addition to investigating the truth, My Kid Could Paint That is also an interesting exploration of abstract art and our fascination with child prodigies.
I know very little about wine. I mean, I know what I like but I'm not sure I would know a Screaming Eagle Cabernet 1992 from a Bordeaux Superieur 2015.
Unlike me, Rudy Kurniawan knew his stuff. With a seemingly infinite ability to invest, a boat-load of charisma and an incredible memory for vintages, Kurniawan quickly gained the reputation of a wine savant, surrounding himself with some of high society’s most fervent wine connoisseurs.
However, when Bill Koch, a top US wine collector, and Laurent Ponsot, a Burgundian wine producer, discover suspicious bottles, an investigation begins into an audacious con.
(Pssst… if you are wondering the Screaming Eagle costs somewhere in the region of £406,000. Meanwhile, the Bordeaux Superieur is just £9 a bottle.)
Author: The JT LeRoy Story
Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary has an incredible story to tell. However, his film is less concerned with Jeremiah Terminator 'JT' LeRoy and more interested in JT’s creator, Laura Albert.
Albert tells her own story. She explains that she suffered a troubled childhood and that she would often call helplines for advice and comfort. Unable to be herself during these calls, she would invent characters and stories instead.
This combination of avatars and storytelling eventually inspired Albert to create JT LeRoy - a young drug addict with a tragic background of prostitution and abuse.
Albert wrote a number of bestselling books as JT and amassed quite the celebrity following. Feuerzeig’s film shows a range of evangelical fans - including Winona Ryder, Bono, Courtney Love and Gus Van Sant.
Several twists and turns later, many of these fans and supporters were left devastated when they discovered that JT LeRoy did not actually exist.
After Yaniv (Nev) Schulman's photograph of dancers is published, he receives a package in the post. An eight year old girl called Abby has painted his photograph and it is stunning. Intrigued, Nev makes contact with Abby’s mum, Angela, and also connects with her wider family via Facebook.
Abby continues to send him paintings - both based on his photography and also portraits of her family and the things that interest her.
Meanwhile, Abby has a 19 year old half-sister called Megan. Nev connects with Megan on Facebook. He can see from her photos and posts that she is beautiful and an accomplished dancer, artist and musician.
Megan and Nev start a tentative virtual relationship. They talk on the phone, message each other and begin to discuss the idea of actually meeting, despite the distance between them (Nev is in New York, Megan in Ishpeming, Michigan).
When a work trip to Vail, Colorado puts him within reach of Ishpeming, Nev asks Megan if she would like to meet him in person. By this point, their virtual relationship has developed and become more intimate.
However, Nev is about to make a shocking discovery - one that throws his entire relationship with Megan into confusion and bewilderment.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
A passing interest in a failed music festival transformed into a feeling of acute anxiety as I watched Chris Smith’s documentary, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.
Created by Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule, Fyre Fest was promoted as a luxury music festival on a private island in the Bahamas featuring bikini-clad supermodels, A-List musical performances and posh amenities. Guests arrived to discover that the reality was lightyears away from what was promised.
Over To You...
Have you seen any of these documentaries about con artists? If you have, what do you think about these films? Are there any other docs that you would add to this list?
Let me know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.