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The Era of the Con Artist

A Personal Perspective: Want money, fame, a show on Netflix? Become a con.

“Inventing Anna” is the most popular show on Netflix today. I watched it and I was entertained, but it also gave me pause and pressed me to think about consequences in our culture when it comes to con artists. The series is based on the New York Magazine article about Anna Delvey, whose real name is Anna Sorokin. She pretends to be a wealthy heiress while defrauding hotels, restaurants, and banks out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Giorgio Trovato/Unsplash
Anna Delvey liked to tip in 100s.
Source: Giorgio Trovato/Unsplash

The mere production of the show rewards a person who has a thirst for fame, and plays a role in maximizing deviant behavior in our current culture. The protagonist is based on a real-life person who lies, cheats, steals, and deceives. She commits crimes not just for the sole purpose to be wealthy, but more so above all to be a celebrity. There is a scene in the series where the journalist of the article, Vivian Kent (based on journalist Jessica Pressler) uses Delvey’s desperate need for fame as an opportunity to convince her to write the story. Kent is able to seal the deal when she says she can give Delvey what she wants: She wants to be famous.

It all starts when Delvey paints a life of luxury online with Instagram pics of her manicured socialite existence that people follow, which further fuels her knack for con artistry. This phony imagery helps to feed her insatiable desire for praise and envy, and she projects a fake persona that allows her to convince people of her heiress stature. Her deception lands her the opportunity to rub elbows with an influential network of people, a more old school type of “influencers,” that could help build her aspiring endeavor, and simultaneously work to help feed her deviant ego.

As the theme of coning runs deep within the series, and works to expose that duplicitous behavior, it is not surprising that it also features a parallel storyline about the Frye scandal.

The documentary film, “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened,” also features a con artist and is currently trending on Netflix. It tells the story of conman Billy McFarland and the failed Fyre Festival of 2017. In “Inventing Anna” there are two scenes that feature this narrative. One has a character that appears to be playing Billy McFarland the “fraudster” of the festival. He is seen the night after a party demonstrating a lifestyle that appears to be all fun and games as he brags to Delvey about his conman conquest. This is followed up with another scene of a character making fun of all the people who fell victim to his sham, as he lined his pockets when they paid an exuberant amount of money to attend his fake festival.

The Tinder Swindler is the number three film on Netflix today; it's about Simon Leviev known as the Tinder Swindler. This documentary features a wealthy mogul who manipulates women online then cons them out of millions of dollars.

Netflix produced three examples of con artists that further accentuate young entrepreneurial scamming. There is a lot that has been said about the younger generation being obsessed with social media and getting “likes” and the ability to make lots of money on such platforms. Social media influencers make it seem as if you can have a YouTube channel, or an Instagram following that will result in a lucrative living, or fame. With these narratives, you can also potentially land a series that will parachute you into the celebrity universe.

What are the consequences of the actions of these con artists? Yes, there are criminal charges, they do jail time, and they have to pay fines, but they also gain a lot more. It’s not just about fame or fortune. At the root of their greed, they likely experience a sick satisfaction from exercising the muscle that comes from being a con artist.

In the case of Delvey, aside from satisfying her twisted ego, she got fame. What does that say about our culture when it comes to consequences? The shows that are grossing millions of dollars on the coattails of these master manipulators are at play. The entertainment outlets that exploit this behavior take part in the evolving nature of our cultural dialogue.

We are living in interesting times where social media continues to dominate an ever-changing culture. That’s not to say before social media there weren’t similar echoes of cautionary tales. According to the series, Delvey spent time in her childhood bedroom obsessing over pictures in magazines that promised some lifestyle she couldn’t afford. It’s just easier now to get caught up in someone’s projected online life, and fall victim to lies. It’s not just those who directly suffered at the hands of people like Delvey, McFarlane, and Leviev. It’s not just the girl who wants that Chanel bag, or some hot date, or a guy who wants to party with supermodels, or viewers who strive for some unattainable lifestyle.

It’s our culture that is at stake.

Cons like Delvey and McFarland will continue to be exposed and seen on entertainment platforms. It’s one thing to say there are known psychological effects on viewers from influencers online, but it’s a whole other thing to unmask the psychological effects that can occur when viewers witness these influencers conduct criminal behavior, and walk away with a lucrative online streaming series cementing them as “iconic” celebrities.

As social media sits at the forefront of cultural discussions and plays a fundamental role in the evolving nature of our dialogue, it demands an open honest discussion on what kind of consequences are given to those who con the world.

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