From bigamists to art forgers: 5 documentaries about con men and women

Swindlers take centre stage as a group of women all married to the same man seek revenge, while a museum registrar and an art forger go head to head in a real-life ‘Thomas Crown Affair’

Theranos CEO, Elizabeth Holmes whose company was accused of "massive fraud", and John Meehan, whose hustler lifestyle ended in tragedy, are both the subject of hard-hitting documentaries. AP,  Netflix
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There’s something about a tale of being conned that continues to fascinate, not least for the audience who gets to watch the tale then reassure themselves it would never happen to them.

People have been swindling and grifting since time began, and tales of their far-reaching crimes have made for fascinating and horrifying documentaries, podcasts and drama series.

The latest con artist to get the documentary treatment is Shimon Hayut, aka the “Tinder Swindler”. Set to be the focus of a new film, the rights of which have been bought by Netflix, the notorious con man used the dating app to meet women before tricking them of out hundreds of thousands of euros.

Targeting women across Scandinavia, including mothers with young children, the Israeli, 30, used the pseudonym Simon Leviev, and pretended to be the son of Russian-Israeli “King of Diamonds”, billionaire Lev Leviev. Previously charged with theft, forgery and fraud back in 2011, Hayut fled his native country under a false identity and was also wanted for various fraud and forgery offences in Norway, Sweden and the UK. Last year he served just five months of a 15-month jail sentence.

So, if tales of swindlers, crooks and charlatans are your thing, here are five documentaries to get your fraudulent fix…

‘Dirty John, The Dirty Truth’, Netflix

What started life as a Los Angeles Times podcast by Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Christopher Goffard, has been turned into a documentary and a mini-series starring Eric Bana, Connie Britton and Julia Garner.

The Netflix documentary, Dirty John, The Dirty Truth, follows the story of US anaesthetist and war veteran John Meehan, 55, who, two days after he was released from prison met self-made millionaire Debra Newell on a dating app in October 2014.

Despite the reservations of her daughters Jacquelyn and Terra, the pair were married in Las Vegas two months later, and soon after that Newell began to discover the truth about her new husband. Having had his anaesthetist licence revoked, he had been in prison, had numerous restraining orders taken out against him and had been described as a “classic psychopath" by women he had stalked, threatened and traumatised. The story culminates in a shocking kidnapping attempt that ends in tragedy.

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley’, HBO

Five years after her company went from a $9 billion valuation to zero, Theranos chief executive Elizabeth Holmes continues to fascinate through podcasts and documentaries about her, including the coming film Bad Blood starring Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes.

Helmed by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, it looks at the goings-on at Theranos, the Silicon Valley start-up that claimed to have created a machine that could scan one drop of blood for dozens of ailments, and features previously unseen footage and testimony from company insiders.

Holmes was touted as the “next Steve Jobs” and the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, but two years later the company was declared a “massive fraud” by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, it’s value dropping to nothing, leaving Theranos awaiting trial for wire fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud.

‘Love Fraud’, Showtime

This four-part series follows the ruined lives con man Richard Scott Smith left in his wake as he crisscrossed the US marrying a number of different women and hiding behind a plethora of fake names.

After a blog set up by “just another woman who was victimised by Richard Scott Smith aka Scott Smith aka Rick Smith” began to gain traction, many women came forward to reveal they had also been married to Smith and been conned out of pensions and life savings.

When authorities failed to find the man in question, citing jurisdiction issues as he fled state after state, the women, documentary-makers and a fast-talking Kansas bounty hunter named Carla, came together to hunt him down and deliver him to the police.

‘McMillions’, HBO

For a scam that involves McDonald’s, the FBI and Monopoly, look no further than McMillions. This six-part documentary tells the story of how $24 million was stolen from the Monopoly game campaign the fast-food giant McDonald’s ran from 1989 to 2001.

The game, which involved customers winning prizes, from food and drink items up to cars and cash prizes, was hijacked by Jerry Jacobson, the head of security for the agency that ran the promotion. It turns out he recruited many accomplices to steal and pass on the top prizes for money. Ultimately, there were “almost no legitimate winners” of any of the high-value prizes such as cars, boats and $1m in cash.

Start watching for the jaw-dropping scope of the scam, and stay for the joy that is the outspoken and unfiltered FBI agent Doug Mathews, the man who picked up a Post-it Note reading: “McDonald’s Monopoly fraud?” off his boss’s desk and went on to crack the case.

‘Art and Craft’, Amazon Prime Video

Art forgery gets the documentary treatment in this exposé that is a lot quirkier than its rather staid title suggests.

Co-directed by Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker, Art and Craft follows the story of Matthew Leininger, the registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art who took it upon himself to expose Mark Landis, one of the art world’s most prolific art forgers, after he was conned by one of Landis’s donations.

Setting himself on Landis’s trail, Leininger discovered the forger had made identical donations to other art institutions around the country, revealing Landis to be a man who privately revelled in his own personal recognition each time he managed to get his forged work displayed.

Updated: July 19, 2021, 4:43 AM