not a book

Not a Book: Madoff – Monster of Wall Street

The latest entry in my catalogue of media about scams is the new Netflix documentary about Bernie Madoff which we binged last weekend.

If you’re not old enough to remember (lucky you!) Bernie Madoff was a Wall Street financier who was sentenced to more than a century in prison after it was discovered that the investment business that he had founded and ran was just a giant Ponzi scheme.

A Ponzi scheme (named after an Italian businessman who ran a fraud on this basis in the 1920s) is a scheme were early investors are paid dividends using money from new investors. The investors obviously don’t know this – and the schemes can keep going as long as new investors keep bringing in money. In the case of the Madoff scheme, he took in billions of dollars from investors and kept the scheme going for close to 20 years (in its final form at any rate) despite nearly being caught by regulators at various points.

This is a four part Netflix documentary that takes you through Madoff’s entire business career, complete with interviews with people who worked at the firm, investors and people who tried to expose what he was doing. It’s a mix of dramatisation, interviews and archive footage and it has one of the clearest explanations that I’ve seen of exactly how he pulled the scam. It should come with a warning though: at one point it shows the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11 2001, which is not something you see often on TV here in the UK and I find really quite upsetting every time I see it.

Anyway, that aside (and I really don’t think they needed to show it), it’s an excellent documentary about one of the biggest financial scandals in history, but also about how it fits into the wider financial system of the time. Very much worth your time.

not a book, tv

Not a Book: Ghislaine Maxwell documentaries

**** Content warning: child sex abuse ****

So with the sentencing of Ghislaine Maxwell due to happen this week, today’s post is a round up of some recent documentaries and related content. Obviously the content around the court case is incredibly grim and distressing, so all the warnings.

I’m going to start with House of Maxwell, which is a three part documentary on the BBC – which you can find on iPlayer. This looks at the Maxwell family – from the rise of newspaper baron Robert, through his mysterious death, the financial scandal that emerged after his death and subsequent legal action through to Ghislaine’s reappearance in New York and everything that followed. If you don’t know about Robert Maxwell and the Mirror group pensions, this is a really good place to start. I was only little when he went missing from his yacht, and didn’t really know much about the detail or the court cases that followed, so it filled in a lot of background for me. This is more a look at the Maxwell family than at Ghislaine specifically.

Epsteins’s Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell is the opposite. It does cover some of the same ground with the family history, but mostly focused on how that impacted on the young Ghislaine and moves on (relatively) quickly to the New York Years and is much more about Maxwell and Epstein’s relationships and what the allegations are against her. This another three parter or at least it was in the UK where it was shown on Sky Documentaries, but I think in the US on Peacock it may have been shown as one three hour doc. This was first broadcast in 2021, and when I saw it earlier this month it had two sets of closing statements – one explaining all the people who had been asked to comment or be interviewed and their responses and the fact that the trial was happening and a second about the verdicts. No doubt the ending will be getting an update this week. Definitely the grimmer of the two – as you would probably expect.

There have also been several podcasts on or around the subject – I’ve listened to some but not all of Power: The Maxwells from Puck, which has a simialr focus to House of Maxwell – in that it’s looking at the family not just Ghislaine. I also have the Maxwell season of British Scandal from Wondery cues up ready to listen to – just as soon as I have time!

I have started but haven’t finished – yet – the 2020 Netflix Jeffrey Epstein documentary, Jeffrey Epstein: Flithy Rich. It’s the grimmest of the lot – we only made it forty minutes into the first episode before it all got too much, so I’ll have to do it in chunks when I’m in a resilient mood and go in prepared. What I’ve seen of it is (obviously) a harrowing watch very much focussed on his victims and their experiences in their own words.

If you just want to read articles – which feel less harrowing (to me at least) that watching or listening, then there is plenty to chose from – although a lot of the big investigative pieces are behind paywalls or partial paywalls – so in the main I’m linking you to indexes here so you can see what there is and pick your stories yourself rather that use up your free articles on my links. Vanity Fair has done a lot – you can see their topic indexes on Ghislaine Maxwell here and Jeffery Epstein here, but as they also did a big profile piece on Epstein in 2003 which there are various conflicting accounts about as this New Yorker article explains. The New Yorker also has topic indexes for both Maxwell and Epstein. New York Magazine also has topic indexes for Maxwell and Epstein. No paywall for The Guardian – again there’s an index for Maxwell and Epstein.

film, not a book

Not a Book: The Sparks Brothers

Back with another documentary this week – this time a film about the band Sparks – namely brothers Ron and Russel Mael. If you’re not sure who they are, the song that you’re most likely to recognise is This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us:

The brothers first formed a band in the mid 1960s but broken through nearly a decade later in the mid 1970s and have been constantly producing music and evolving ever since, whether people have been watching or not – and some times people really haven’t been watching. But they have a lot of high profile fans. Don’t believe me? Watch the trailer:

Directed by Edgar Wright (yes him from Hot Fuzz) this is a two and a bit hour love letter to one of pop’s most enigmatic bands. Who are still enigmatic at the end of the film, but you’ve really enjoyed watching them go through their career and making music. The film is structured by working it’s way through the bands albums and what was going on in the band at the time. But only in the band. I still don’t know if the brothers have partners, or kids or anything. But I do know that Ron has a very cool and very retro car.

It’s also totally notable that although many other musicians have joined them in the band at various points only to be jettisoned as the brothers moved on, lots of them appear in the film and seem to be absolutely fine about it. In fact Ron and Russel are often described as gentlemen and a joy to work with. So not your normal music documentary on that front either.

Maybe it could have been shorter, but why wouldn’t you want to include puppets and incredibly literal props and visual gags. It’s just a lovely way to pass the time, and you’ll end up listening to a Sparks playlist afterwards. I’ve even included on for you so you don’t have to go looking for it. You’re welcome. The Sparks Brothers is on Netflix in the UK. Enjoy.

book adjacent, not a book

Not a Book: Murder Among the Mormons

I’m on a bit of a documentary jag on my TV viewing at the moment – and no I’m not counting Selling Sunset and Selling Tampa as documentaries – they’re definitely “constructed reality” or whatever they’re calling it now. Anyway this week I watched all three episodes of Murder Among the Mormons across two nights and it was really good.

Murder Among the Mormons looks at three bombings that took place in Salt Lake City in Utah in 1985. It soon becomes apparent that the bombings are linked to the trade in historical documents – and particularly to a series of documents related to the history of the Latter Day Saint movement. It’s got interviews with most of the key figures in the story and looks at the run up to the bombings, the bombings themselves and then the investigation looking to find the perpetrators.

Regular readers of the blog will know that the weirder corners of American religion and religious history and this fitted right into that niche for me. It’s not actually even a new release – it came out almost a year ago but despite all the murder mysteries I read, I’m not usually a big true crime murder mystery person because there’s no guarantee you’re going to get a resolution the way you are in a book that’s sticking to genre conventions. So I probably wouldn’t have watched this if it wasn’t for this tweet from Julie Cohen:

I mean how can you resist trying to find out about the magic salamander. And there actually not a lot more I want to say about the actual contents of the documentary. Because if you go into this not knowing any more than I’ve told you at the top: car bombs linked to the trade in historical documents then this will be a really wild ride. I can’t speak to how it works for you if you already know the story – but the makers of the documentary have put this together incredibly cleverly. So, it’s only three hours of your life – go, go, go.

And if this is your first toe in the corner of the various of Mormonism, then do go have a look at my posts about Under the Banner of Heaven, the season of Unfinished about Short Creek and also relatively recent BotW Educated.

Have a great Sunday!