The success of true-crime shows and documentaries like The Tinder Swindler and Inventing Anna reveal how easy it is to twist facts and almost glorify crime
Two recent Netflix releases have caught people’s attention, one a mini-series and the other a documentary. One chronicles the exploits of a dating website swindler who conned several women out of millions of dollars, and the other fictionalises a real-life hustler (read con-woman) who could have swindled big-city banks out of millions.
Inventing Anna and The Tinder Swindler have topped the most viewed charts since they first dropped on Netflix, and for good reason. Based on real crimes, their popularity makes one wonder: why are these characters and their stories so morbidly fascinating?
The answer may differ for each viewer, but one fact is consistent: these characters, real criminals, managed to cause quite a stir in real people’s lives. However, the focus is never the crime in their Netflix appearances. It is the criminal that takes the spotlight. Especially in the case of Anna Delvey, the fact that she defrauded people and exploited service providers is much less a concern and more an afterthought even though she is in prison for these very crimes. It is her, the young 25-something, who is the focus of the mini-series. Delvey presented through Vivian Kent’s lens is a real-life grifter caught amidst capitalistic ambitions and Wall Street power holders, who only let in those they deem rich enough. The fake German heiress is presented as a genius who managed to cross the threshold, landing right into the world of the super-wealthy.
The Tinder Swindler, on the other hand, focuses less on romanticising the criminal con-man and more on the human need for romance and companionship in the most story-like fashion. In 2022, we are still waiting, hoping for fairytale endings and Prince Charmings who can fly us off to the utopian land of lavish parties, designer accessories, private dinners, and private jets replacing the centuries-old dreams of carriages and ball gowns fed to us during our childhoods.
Simon Leviev and Anna Delvey have managed to tap into the human psyche and exploit people’s desires. Similarly, the makers of the two Netflix hits have managed to monetise our interest in these characters. It has been reported that Delvey (Sorokin) was paid upwards of $300,000 by the show’s makers, whereas Hollywood talent managers have reportedly been approaching Leviev (Shimon Hayut).
The social media frenzy surrounding these true-crime shows and documentaries can sometimes cause the real purpose of bringing these stories to screen to fade in the background. At the end of the day, the two shows have brought to light that no matter how many times we assert that we are sceptics by nature, humans are a trusting breed.
At least Felicity Morris, The Tinder Swindler‘s director, does try to analyse the psyche of Leviev. Instead, at the forefront of the documentary are three women who were conned by Hayut, who pretended to be the son of an Israeli diamond mogul, Lev Leviev, and emotionally manipulated these women into supporting his lavish lifestyle.
Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Inventing Anna, does not pretend to paint Anna as a criminal mastermind capable of ruining people’s lives and livelihoods. Instead, Delvey becomes an enigma, a mystery; everyone wants to know her reasons for defrauding people, everyone wants to know the inner workings of her mind. At some level, one even begins sympathising with Delvey.
As they see Kent becoming more invested in the story of a displaced young girl who had to learn to put up a facade every time she headed out into an unwelcoming new environment, the viewers find themselves drawn in, forgetting that Delvey’s crimes landed her in jail. The show implies that there is more to Anna’s story. Perhaps, if she had secured the 40-million-dollar loan she would have paid off everyone, is the real issue. No one knows what Sorokin would have done, but the viewer is made to cling to this hope, making them acquit the young fraudster of willful wrongdoing. Much like Todd Spodek, the viewer begins questioning people like Rachel Williams for jumping ship and monesting the misery and downfall of their ‘friend.’
The real Anna has paid for her cons with jail time, but Hayut remains a free man. The Leviev family may have sued him, but he is still out there, probably conning other women - Netflix has a massive audience, but that does not mean that everyone has watched the documentary and knows the reality of The Tinder Swindler.
The women Hayut conned have had to endure online trolling. The people Sorokin used have been labelled by online bashers as rich and spoiled and deserving a taste of their own medicine. This reaction shows that there is something fundamentally rotten in the power social media holds and how it manipulates narratives. The social media frenzy surrounding these true-crime shows and documentaries can sometimes cause the real purpose of bringing these stories to screen to fade in the background.
At the end of the day, the two shows have brought to light that no matter how many times we assert that we are sceptics by nature, humans are a trusting breed. We do tend to go along with people’s explanations of events, which is why fictional characters and stories hold such power. Also, anytime we are confronted with something uncomfortable, the first instinct is to ignore it and assert that this would not happen to us. What happened to the women conned by Simon Leviev can happen to anyone. He sold them a dream. So did Anna Delvey. She promised to build a profitable business that anyone with money would want to invest in.
These swindlers profited from exploiting people’s fantasies and dreams. That is the message that should have been the focus of the Netflix shows.
The writer is a staff member