A new Netflix documentary about Donald Trump characterizes him as a “P.T Barnum” carnival barker who hyped his reputation despite failed businesses and capitalized on an image as a powerful deal-maker on “The Apprentice” to launch himself into the White House.
Director Fisher Stevens told HuffPost that Trump is still leaving victims in his wake, just as he did in business, like so much “road kill.”
And his behavior is the same: “lying and creating false scenarios,” said Stevens, who produced the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary “The Cove,” about dolphin slaughter in Japan.
Trump was “pretty down and out,” after a series of bankruptcies, said Fisher. ”‘The Apprentice’ gave Trump a new life. He keeps bouncing back. You can punch him, and he comes back.”
“The Confidence Man” is part of a new Netflix series called “Dirty Money.” The Trump segment examines his life before he became president, focusing on his business deals, bankruptcies, business partners and the popular reality show about him that its creators considered a “scam.” The documentary does not cast a favorable light.
Trump biographer Tim O’Brien calls him a “P.T. Barnum” who continually hyped his own inflated image of himself. Trump declared bankruptcies several times, leaving investors, contractors and banks holding the bag, while declaring his incredible success, O’Brien noted.
Trump’s Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey — touted as the “eighth wonder of the world” in ads — went bankrupt even though Trump’s father, Fred Trump, gave him a hand by buying $3 million in chips — and not using them — in a quiet loan, according to Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell. The Taj was a “financial disaster,” thanks to Trump, O’Donnell says in the film.
But Trump blamed Taj CEO Stephen Hyde and COO Mark Etess, who had been killed in a helicopter crash. When O’Donnell complained, he said Trump replied, “What does it matter? They’re dead.” The documentary notes that Trump’s other two casinos in Atlantic City, the Trump Castle and the Trump Plaza Casino and Hotel, also went broke.
Throughout the 1990s for Trump, business was scarce and loans were tough to get from U.S. banks because of his bankruptcies. He made the rounds of talk shows and pitched McDonald’s burgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken in commercials. He eventually hit on the idea of selling his name to mark projects built by others around the world and began doing business with “some of the sketchiest people in the sketchiest countries,” New Yorker writer Adam Davidson explains in the documentary. Some associates were “unbelievably corrupt,” including a key investor suspected of laundering money for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Trump International Hotel and Tower in Baku, Azerbaijan, Davidson adds.
In 2004, Trump became the star of “The Apprentice.”
The reality TV show’s creators remade the offices of the Trump Organization for “The Apprentice,” giving it what they considered a “tongue-in-cheek” look, they note in the documentary. The offices included a boardroom set reminiscent of the one from the movie “Network,” where crazed TV anchor Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, is lectured by the head of his company that “the world is a business.”
“How funny to have this washed-up, five-time-bankruptcy guy who lives in a golden palace that other people are paying for” as the star of the show, says “Apprentice” supervising editor Jonathon Braun in the documentary. “We just didn’t know how many people would look at that and say, ‘That’s cool. That’s real.’”
When people saw the “Apprentice” Trump as the real thing, “We all sort of rose up and said, ‘Now wait a minute, people, what we did, that was a scam. That was an entertainment,’” said series producer Bill Pruitt.
Davidson suggests that the Trump presidency could be the “great con ... the great grift ... all part of the 45-year showbiz project known as the Trump Organization.”
Stevens said his hope is that “The Confidence Man” convinces people to get “motivated” to change things.
“The fossil fuel industry is running the country now,” he told HuffPost. “Trump doesn’t care about the environment. I worry about the next generation. I’m concerned for my children.”
“Confidence Man” is one of six episodes of “Dirty Money” on Netflix, developed by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney and his Jigsaw Productions. Gibney was the director of the ultimate documentary examination of the Enron scam: “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” Gibney told The Guardian earlier this week that Trump “was an absolutely terrible businessman. You look at the trail of slime he left behind and just shake your head and wonder.”
Other “Dirty Money” segments include a look at “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, and the Audi and Volkswagen clean diesel scam. All six episodes are streaming on Netflix now.