Con artists have captivated moviemakers almost as long as the art form has been around. Hollywood classics like “The Sting,” “The Producers,” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” had fun with their subjects, and “Catch Me If You Can,” “American Hustle,” and “The Usual Suspects” followed closely in those footsteps. There’s something distinctly American about the self mythologizing required to pull off a high stakes con; the American Dream is practically built on delusions of grandeur.
These days, one need not construct a fake casino or write a ridiculous Broadway show to dupe people out of thousands of dollars. As the various crafty characters in “Generation Hustle” reveal, the internet has made scamming easier than ever: All it takes is some chutzpah and a fake website.
The 10-part docuseries, premiering tonight on HBO Max, profiles 10 recent scammers of varying levels of notoriety. Disgraced WeWork founder Adam Neumann and faux socialite Anna Delvey (AKA Anna Sorokin) have already been covered extensively, both in writing and film, and their 50-minute episodes aren’t nearly as satisfying or juicy as the extensive reporting that can be easily found online. The WeWork episode already has competition with the just-released Hulu documentary “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn” — although too much coverage didn’t seem to hurt the two competing Fyre Festival documentaries that came out around the same time in 2019. Sometimes, you just can’t get enough.
In the three episodes provided to critics, “Generation Hustle” covers each story with a rather formulaic approach: The first half of each episode sets up the scam through interviews with various marks and occasionally the scammer themselves, and the second half reveals the details of each deception and charts the person’s ultimate fall from grace. At the midway point an investigator, lawyer, or reporter is introduced in order to help explain the details of the con: How the person got away with it, how they got caught, and what exactly was illegal about it.
The first episode, “The Con Queen of Hollywood,” charts an elaborate scheme that sent aspiring screenwriters, photographers, and actors on a wild goose chase through Indonesia on their own dime, all with the promise of reimbursement and a large paycheck at the end. This scam is one of the more heartbreaking ones, since each person is an aspiring creative of some kind who thinks they are getting their big break. It was also one of the more impressive ruses, considering the end reveal it was all orchestrated by one man who adopted multiple voices and characters — women and men — and even at one point posed as Wendi Murdoch.
“The Con Queen of Hollywood” relies on crude but colorful 2D animations to help narrate the story; they play like a mix between courtroom illustrations and storyboards for re-creations that never got filmed. A few of the episodes use this technique, although not all of them, in an attempt to enliven the visuals. Episode 4, “Anna Delvey Takes Manhattan,” foregoes the animation in favor of Delvey’s own eerily humorous illustrations, which a written missive explains she sent the filmmakers from prison in lieu of a sit-down interview. (Speaking of competition in these tales, Delvey also is the subject of an upcoming Shonda Rhimes drama series at Netflix, where she will be played by Julia Garner.)
Where in-person interviews could be filmed, the episodes take on a slightly-more-researched documentary feel. The second episode, “The Party’s Over,” tells the story of teenage party promoter Ian Bick, who haphazardly roped his Connecticut friends and their parents into a $500,000 Ponzi scheme. In interviews, Bick is cagey and good-natured about his past, reluctant to admit intentional wrongdoing and basking in his memories of jet skis and topless girls.
The most intriguing part of “Generation Hustle” are the supporting characters lingering on the outskirts of each scheme. Delvey’s criminal defense attorney, for instance, cuts a funny figure in his Sammy’s Romanian Steakhouse T-shirt, as he proudly reads a Frank Sinatra quote from his opening statement. Bick’s father is also a character, chiding himself for his naive support of his son’s business while evincing something resembling pride at the ingenuity of it all.
But the bold graphics and flashy music prove that what “Generation Hustle” is lacking in substance cannot be made up for in shoddily-constructed style. Like the scams within, the stories feel half-baked, under-researched, and flimsy. Unlike its wily subjects, “Generation Hustle” provides just enough to get you interested, but not enough to hook you.
“Generation Hustle” premieres on HBO Max on April 22.