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The Con Artist Trope - Why Lying Doesn’t Matter Today

Today’s new era of con artists aren’t the hardened, film noir criminals of the past; they’re slick, manipulative social media scammers, or glamorous-looking hustlers determined to fake it until they make it. They seek power through first creating an image or idea around themselves. Con artistry is about gaming the system to accrue influence and status, and then leveraging that into concrete gains. Here’s our take on the modern con artist, and whether today’s scams and hustles are just becoming something we’re all expected to take part in.

Transcript

The Con artist is all over today’s film and TV – so are we supposed to be appalled by this figure, or are we actually… impressed?

Today’s new era of con artists aren’t the hardened, film noir criminals of the past; they’re slick, manipulative social media scammers, or glamorous-looking hustlers determined to fake it until they make it. But there are still a few common traits that define the Con Artist:

They seek power through first creating an image or idea around themselves. Con artistry is about gaming the system to accrue influence and status, and then leveraging that into concrete gains. These crimes are often financially motivated. That’s one reason some con artists can be fairly sympathetic – because if their victims are rich members of high society or investors with money to spare, we might feel less bad about watching them get taken in. The con artist character is also kind of a genius . There’s a reason we call them con artists – morals aside, there’s undeniable skill to what they do. And finally, they’re a shapeshifter. Underpinning the con artist has always been an ability to change their identity and be whoever their target wants them to be. Which raises the question, how do we even know who the con artist really is?

Today this is even harder than ever as what exactly constitutes a “con” or a “scam” is less and less clear. In the recent stories about big tech cons, we see entrepreneurs making huge promises, but this is just part of the whole hustle to score big funding – so when does the exaggerating (or lying) cross a line? Is it only if they fail that we dub them frauds? And in the new web 3.0 world of NFTs and cryptocurrencies – which few people truly understand in depth – it’s even easier for people to get pulled in by slick marketing proposals with empty promises. Here’s our take on the modern con artist, and whether today’s scams and hustles are just becoming something we’re all expected to take part in.

Anna Delvey: “Pay attention, maybe you’ll learn to be smart like me. I doubt it, but you can dream.” - Inventing Anna

CHAPTER ONE: THE ART OF CON ARTISTS

If we do have a quiet admiration for con artists, that’s because often they are artists – whether you’re talking about the letter writing of Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the impersonations and check forgeries of Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can, or the fact that Rudy Kurniawan, the subject of Sour Grapes, was able to create fake versions of priceless bottles of wine by blending other varieties in his kitchen.

Our modern era’s films and shows are particularly fascinated with true stories of hustlers who pulled off scams that seem too unbelievable for fiction.

Inventing Anna looks at Anna Delvey’s artistry in persona creation. The series unpacks how the fake socialite successfully sold the elite on an idea of her as an heiress with huge potential and the highest standards. And in The Tinder Swindler, there’s something incredible about how Simon Leviev perfected a pattern of manipulation, convincing tinder dates that they’d found true love with a billionaire, before conning them into giving him hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Simon Leviev: “He can always say ‘I was just borrowing the money’, it’s almost like the perfect scam”- Inside Edition Tinder Swindler

While examples like Delvey and Leviev were blatantly deceptive, in other examples the line of where con artistry begins gets murkier. The Dropout and WeCrashed look at controversial former tech stars Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos and Adam Neumann of Wework, who were once seen as incredible entrepreneurs redefining their respective industries – and likewise believed themselves to be game-changing visionaries. In The Dropout, Elizabeth’s origin story paints her as a scrappy, tenacious underdog, ready to smash the glass ceiling thanks to her intelligence and ambition. WeCrashed underlines how Adam perfected an idealism and a vision that’s common to all entrepreneurs, and just excelled far more at the game that you need to play to get the kind of investment you need to be a ‘unicorn’ company. In both cases, as the reality of their business starts to diverge from the vision they’ve sold of it, the founder’s refusal to depart from the nice-sounding story veers more and more into lying or fraud – which in the case of Theranos means endangering actual patients’ health. But plenty of tech success stories do incur heavy financial losses or seem like risky overpromises for many years as they spend money to grow – they’re just the “real thing” to us because we believe the hype and give them enough time for big bets to pay off.

Whether they win or lose, what underpins these modern con artists is the smoke and mirrors of it all. In classic con artist films like The Sting or the Ocean’s franchise, this smoke and mirrors is laid out almost like a magic trick, with a series of intricate moving parts all working together to fulfill a goal. Now, it’s more based on image and glamor that’s projected to a greater public or a set of investors.These con artists sell a dream-like vision to dress up the truth, hoping that by the time they get found out, either they’ll have achieved the vision they were always aiming for, or they’ll have gotten out of dodge.

CHAPTER TWO: DESPERATE TIMES…

Con artists are born not just out of grandiose visions, but also out of desperation. These characters might start out as Robin Hoods, having noble and good intentions even if they break the law. In Money Heist, the criminals are undeniably the heroes, targeting not ordinary people, but an unequal, unjust society.

Many con artist films are set in global financial crises. In Paper Moon and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, we see how the Great Depression forces people to grift and scam in order to survive. It’s not about making big sums of money – you have to be ingenious, resourceful and a little loose with the truth just to make do.

So perhaps another contributing factor to the modern resurgence of the con artist trope was the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, which hit ordinary people the hardest. In Hustlers, a group of strippers scam wealthy Wall Street clients – but the disparity between those rich men and the more hand to mouth existence of the women is stark, so we’re likely to intuitively sympathize with the scammers. Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona also rationalizes that the financial elite are the ones who’ve truly scammed our country in serious ways and deserve some payback. Other films that have gone deep into the financial crisis have likewise framed Wall Street as not far from scammers and grifters who took advantage of people and of flaws in the system for self serving ends.

Gordon Gecko: “Nobody knows if a stock is gonna go up, down, sideways, or in f***ng circles. / It’s a fake. Fugayzi, fugazi, it’s a whazy, its a woozy, it’s fairy dust.” - Wall Street

Our attraction to con artists onscreen depends a lot on who’s being conned. It’s easier to sympathize when they’re going after the rich elite, but our allegiance tends to run out when they exploit regular folks or especially vulnerable people. I Care A Lot follows a con artist who exploits guardianship law to prey on the elderly, and comes across as wholly unlikable. In Inventing Anna, Anna’s deceiving rich people plays as more fun and fanciful because it lacks major consequences. When Anna causes serious financial stress for non-rich people who consider her a friend, though, this feels like a more disturbing violation. In The Dropout, we’re likely to enjoy Elizabeth taking on the men in her industry who underestimate her, but clearly not when she’s deceiving patients who need accurate blood tests. In WeCrashed, likewise, it’s one thing for Adam Neumann to talk VCs into giving him lots of funding, but he becomes increasingly unsympathetic as it gets clear his rhetoric of “we” has all been empty; he’s interested in enriching himself and more than willing to screw over the regular Wework employees who’d been underpaid for years while they were promised a big IPO payout. And while many of those workers never saw a dime, Neumann is a billionaire, who’s jumping back into the entrepreneurial game with a new crypto company.

Modern con artists are often experts at leveraging that likable “desperate conman” sense that they’re relatable underdogs taking on the system – except they lack any real intention to make positive or meaningful change. Our tendency to find sympathetic backstories for the con artist is so ingrained that, in Inventing Anna, journalist Vivian expects that Anna’s extreme behavior must have come out of some tragic or crime-ridden childhood. Vivian is shocked when she discovers Anna’s parents were pretty normal loving people just doing their best, and there’s no real explanation for Anna.

Still, Adam and Anna are portrayed as acting out of a certain kind of desperation – to live a bigger “good life”, to be taken seriously and treated as important. So maybe Vivian’s desperation to find some deeper reason for Anna’s behavior stems from the fear that we can all see something of ourselves in her.

CHAPTER THREE: WHEN IS A CON A CON?

Sierra Burgess: “Texting somebody that doesn’t even know who you are? There’s a word for that, it’s called Catfishing and I’m pretty sure it’s illegal.” - Sierra Burgess Is a Loser

The internet has changed the con artist, so much so that we even have a new name for it. Catfishing is the quintessential 21st century con. The term was first coined by the 2010 documentary and then in the spin-off TV series’ to refer to people who adopt different personas on dating profiles, and it’s since been explored in films like Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, Love Hard, and Dear Evan Hansen. While it’s not something we’re all guilty of, catfishing utilizes techniques that almost all of us employ on social media. We embellish facts, filter pictures, and present an idealized version of ourselves that might not be strictly true, or at least not the whole truth. When you add in today’s deepfake technology and the rise of fake news, we’re living in a world that’s more than ever removed from – and uninterested in – black and white objectivity or facts

In fact, online scamming is now so routine that when things like Fyre Festival, The Tinder Swindler, or NFT scams blow up publicly, some people are less inclined to feel for victims. Since we know the internet is this wild west place where you need to be vigilant, some may look down on people who fall for these tricks. And scammers who are exposed don’t necessarily fail forever – they might even gain fans and admirers. The Tinder Swindler has leveraged what was a pretty damning documentary to grow his brand – attracting a large social media following, launching an NFT collection and even selling merchandise. There’s also a Cameo page where fans can pay Simon for a video message shout out. Anna Delvey - also a social media star – was a paid consultant on Inventing Anna and has a docuseries in the works. And while she’s spent time behind bars, she has achieved her central goal of becoming famous. So not only do the lines between what is and isn’t a con (and what is or isn’t success) feel completely murky, but our reactions to these “cons” are also more and more subjective. Is all this just the new reality of living in a digital world?

OUTRO

Maybe the real victim of this new con artist’s world is all of us – because what our sympathy toward con artists reveals is how little value we place on the truth now. What matters is what you can get people to believe, how much you can profit from your own self-created myth. And that’s a scary world to be living in.

Simon Leviev: “I feel bad for what has happened to myself. I wanna clear my name, this is not true” - Inside Edition Tinder Swindler