From Extreme Catfishing to Wine Fraud, Here Are 6 Documentaries About Con Artists
This post originally appeared on Salon by Ashlie D. Stevens.
Sometimes, there's nothing more satisfying to watch than a good con or, at least, watching how someone who has perpetrated one gets caught.
In those narratives, there's often a really appealing push-pull between admiring the artfulness of the fraudster and rooting for the investigators on their trail. It's also a brand of true crime that's a little lower stakes—and inherently less problematically salacious—than some of the gorier serial killer stories.
If you've already blown through HBO Max's Generation Hustle, a new 10-episode show about the scammers and schemers who walk among us, then check out a few documentaries and docuseries about some of the most intriguing cons in recent history. From an extreme catfisher to a man who donates forged art to museums, there's something for you.
1. Love Fraud (Showtime)
This four-episode docuseries looks into a man who has taken catfishing to an absolutely wild extreme, resulting in a multi-state manhunt spearheaded by all the women he's left in his wake. Love Fraud investigates the case of Richard Scott Smith (that's just one of his names, by the way), a Kansas native who would try on different identities to lure new romantic partners—though, just long enough to marry them and make off with their cars, credit cards, and hearts.
A number of women who were scammed by him hire Carla Campbell, a pint-sized bounty hunter with a foul mouth and quick temper, to track Smith down before he strikes again.
2. Sour Grapes (Tubi)
The world of high-dollar wine is one filled with excess, tradition, and gatekeepers. But in 2006, Rudy Kurniawan, a 30-something Indonesian wine collector, seemingly burst out of nowhere when an auction company broke records by selling $35 million worth of his wines.
Kurniawan soon became a wine world darling as restaurant owners, Hollywood producers, and billionaire Bill Koch purchased from his collection of Burgundies. And people loved him! He was a wine genius who had always had an encouraging word (and often a spare bottle of wine) for everyone.
However, elements of his origin story—how he accumulated his collection, how he learned about wine, and how he made his money—started to unravel once a French winemaker started looking into his claims.
In Sour Grapes, filmmakers Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas investigate how Kurniawan pulled one of the biggest wine world scams in history.
3. Art and Craft (Amazon)
Mark Landis was one of America's most prolific art forgers. For over 30 years, he conned museums by donating paintings to them that he claimed were made and signed by famous artists, but had actually been created by him.
He generally targeted smaller museums; however, his habit for making copies of the same painting—sometimes up to six at a time—finally caught up to him when Matthew Leininger, a museum manager with a grudge, started tracking Landis's movements.
However, when the two finally came face to face, Landis wasn't exactly the picture of the con man Leininger had painted in his mind. Art and Craft is a surprisingly heartwarming and humorous documentary that delves into truth, belief, and mental illness.
4. FYRE: The Greatest Party that Never Happened (Netflix)
Some of the best con stories are ones that are bolstered by schadenfreude—the kind where you're actually kind of okay with what the scam exposed about those who were taken. Then there are the ones where you're just dying for the con artist to get their just deserts instead.
Fyre, Netflix's documentary about the ill-fated Fyre Festival, is the best of both worlds. The Fyre Festival was billed as a luxury music experience on a private island. It was supposed to be headlined by blockbuster acts and attended by an endless stream of Instagram influencers and models. But in the hands of a cocky entrepreneur, it failed in a spectacularly public fashion, leaving said influencers stranded with nothing but some lackluster cheese sandwiches and their cell phones.
5. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (HBO Max)
With her deep voice and collection of black turtlenecks, Elizabeth Holmes was billed as the next Steve Jobs. Her company, Theranos, gained traction when they announced the invention of miniature blood testing labs called "Edisons." Holmes hit the covers of major magazines and managed to get glowing profiles about her purported genius—but a couple of whistleblowers eventually tipped off reporters that Holmes was more interested in accolades than the scientific advancements her company was allegedly making.
6. An Honest Liar (Amazon)
This 2014 documentary is one of the oldest on this list (Art and Craft is from 2014, as well) and there are times that, watching it seven years later, it looks a little dated. That said, An Honest Liar is a splendidly meta examination of a man who used his talent for deception to build a career, who is also deeply intent on exposing the people who he believes to be real fraudsters.
An Honest Liar documents the life of magician and escape artist James Randi. After turning 50—and nearly drowning during one of his escape attempts—Randi turned his attention to exposing psychics, faith healers, and con artists, many of whom used the same sleight of hand he had mastered for his stage shows.
The filmmakers also caught Randi and his partner of 25 years, José Alvarez, in some deception of their own, calling into question the bounds—and ultimate importance—of complete honesty.