Two months ago, it was all about the Fyre Festival. Remember? Two documentaries came out nearly simultaneously. Netflix streamed the more cleverly titled, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened while competitor Hulu broadcast, Fyre Fraud. You would have to been trapped in your car in a blizzard for the month of January not to have heard about either or both.
If you just got out of that car, let me fill you in. The Fyre Festival was, quite simply, a disaster. Or to put it more kindly, a failed “luxury music festival” founded by Billy McFarland, CEO of Fyre Media Inc, and rapper Ja Rule. It started from a good place or so one thought. The festival was to promote the company’s Fyre app designed to book high-end music talent more democratically and at less cost (seems to me the app is still a good idea).
Any more information would lead to massive spoiler alerts. Suffice it to say, we watched Billy McFarland boast, weasel and bungle himself to a place he never expected to be. We watched, and re-watched, because we loved seeing him go down (is that justice or kind of gross?). Perhaps we could not stand him cavorting around with all the trappings 98% of the population cannot attain.
True crime stories have never been more popular. Just look at the programming on the aforementioned Netflix and Hulu, not to mention Prime and all others. Most are of the bloody, violent variety. These include Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes; The Staircase; Making a Murderer; The Jinx; Abducted in Plain Sight; this list goes on and on.
This is nothing new. After all, I remember the television shows from the last century like America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries (Robert Stack in the trench coat was extra fromage-y). It is just amazing the ever-increasing appetite for this programming. To be a clear, I am not a fan of the guns and kidnapping crime genre, however, I am insatiable when it comes to white collar crime.
It started in 1988 when I picked up the book Contrepreneurs: Stock Market Fraud and Money Laundering in Canada. Diane Francis was a reporter at the Financial Post at the time. I still remember the section on boiler rooms. It was debatable if Canada invented this fraudulent activity, but Francis proved that we Canucks certainly perfected it.
From there, I read every book on Wall Street greed including Den of Thieves, Barbarians at the Gate (awesome! But never watch the movie), Liar’s Poker, and The Predator’s Ball. Historic events would produce more accounts and I devoured When Genius Failed, Too Big to Fail, The Big Short, Fool’s Gold, Conspiracy of Fools, The Wizard of Lies, and The Spider Network.
What struck me right from Contrepreneurs through all of these books was, “if these smart folks stayed within the lines, wouldn’t they still be wildly successful?” That is what amazes me. These are largely very smart and driven people. Too-driven, perhaps, to accept anything less than the pinnacle of their industry and careers.
There are books that try to explain people’s motivations in these instances. Harvard Business School professor Eugene Soltes, wrote, Why They Do It. He cites Enron, Tyco, McKinsey, and Madoff, to try to explain why “the failings of corporate titans are regular fixtures in the news”. He found that “white-collar criminals are not merely driven by excessive greed or hubris, nor do they usually carefully calculate costs and benefits before breaking the law.” Soltes believes these executives make decisions the way we all do – on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings.
Then they make mistakes but are “increasingly distanced from the consequences of their decisions and the individuals they impact.” I have heard these people called narcissistic, even sociopaths. This is because they care not for the consequences. They are insulated in a thick suit that keeps out empathy and self-awareness.
Another story that fits this bill is Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Much of the story is captured in the book, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. Theranos was a privately held health technology corporation that became infamous for its false claims to have devised blood tests that only needed very small amounts of blood. It was founded in 2003 by then-19-year-old Holmes. The company raised more than US$700 million from venture capitalists and private investors and reached a $10 billion valuation at its peak.
John Carreyrou of The Wall Street Journal burst this bubble when he questioned the validity of Theranos’ technology. It turns out it was all ‘smoke and mirrors’ and this led to charges of fraud with some settled and others still being pursued. Julie Carrie Wong writing in The Guardian says, “We can’t get enough of Elizabeth Holmes.”
Wong continues, “The Silicon Valley morality tale – a true crime saga with a dash of Fyre Fest-schadenfreude and the added bonus of an icy blonde with a mysteriously deep voice – has thus far inspired a best-selling book, a popular podcast, and two documentaries, with a feature film and real-life criminal trial still to come.” I forgot to mention that Seth Rogan is doing a spoof film of the Fyre Festival. All of this proving that the appetite for white-collar hucksters has created a lucrative cottage industry.
It does not take a high Mensa score to predict that the college admissions cheating scandal involving celebrities and other big muckety-mucks will result in books and a movie or two. Already the coverage has made those named guilty before any due process. Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are at the centre of the storm (perhaps they will play themselves in the movie?).
Loughlin has lost acting gigs and the Hallmark Channel has written her off. Also taking a hit is Loughlin’s influencer daughter, Olivia Jade Giannulli. The YouTuber and Instagrammer has lost a handful of sponsored-content and collaboration deals with various companies, which include Sephora, TRESemmé, and the Estée Lauder Companies. People are mining her past posts and finding out how removed from reality she was when it came to post-secondary education.
This aspect of this privileged crime takes us right back to the Fyre Festival where influencers have been criticized for their role in promoting the event. We live in a world where social media is more prone to induce jealousy and envy than aspiration and admiration. This world now includes multiple accounts of the shenanigans we humans get ourselves in. It is a complex network of voyeurism and no one knows where it will lead and how it will affect our behaviours.
I am not erudite enough to posture an opinion. Why? Because all I want to do is wrap this up so I can get back to reading Bradley Hope and Tom Wright’s book, Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World.