“I reflected on myself and was questioning to what extent I was guilty, to what extent I was complicit”
Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened isn’t nearly introspective or smart enough to feel like more than a 90-minute exercise in the schadenfreude of watching wealthy “influencers” and a con artist get what was coming to them after the explosion of their biggest scam — the Fyre Festival, a music festival scheduled to take place over two weekends in 2017 that descended into outrage, fraud and, eventually, prison time for some.
Fyre features interviews with a number of men and women who helped make the festival happen — financiers, social media marketers, logistical managers — and is in fact produced by a number of them. It casts Billy McFarland, the central con artist, as a singular villain and sociopath who swindled his workers and employees.
He is, and he did, but the movie never engages with the nature of Fyre, and what it means in the context of our current political predicament where an actual con artist is President of the United States and criminals are quickly taking rather overt control over international institutions. The quoted line of dialogue comes at the end and is never truly unpacked, but it opens up a much more fascinating line of inquiry: To what extent do we all allow ourselves to be swept away by men and women who ask us to stomach unreasonable lies in pursuit of something absurd? How do we rationalize it? Why do we persistently do so? How does Fyre fit into the grand scheme of the continuous fraud that forms the foundation of our economy? And, most importantly: What happens to those who don’t have the money to fund Netflix documentaries to exonerate themselves? What about the local workers who were actually ripped off and only featured in two interviews … whose lives were ruined?
It only features brief interviews with the actual residents of the Bahamian island who lost thousands of dollars for their work making the failed festival happen. Most of the running time is taken up by the producers of the movie and the various employees whom McFarland used and abused to achieve his swindle. The movie misses a tremendous opportunity to really be about something larger than the pleasure of watching a con man’s big grift crumble.
There are jokes to be made about Fyre representing late-stage capitalism, as the event was largely experienced through the social media feeds of wealthy folks who could afford to attend an “exclusive getaway music festival” in the Bahamas. Watching them eat cheese sandwiches and sleep on shitty cots became an internet sensation, and Fyre regales us with the greatest hits. It only interviews a few of those people. It never seems that concerned about who they are and what their experiences were. I’m all for the pillorying of idle wealth, but the lack of effort put into exploring just how Fyre impacted the people who attended it also felt like a missed opportunity.
We experience it all vicariously as the disaster unfolds because the men and women featured in this documentary never said “No.”
Which, in turn, asks the question: Did these professionals, having gotten in bed with McFarland (whose earlier venture, a club card called Magnises, also was clearly a scam), possess the economic and social power to really turn down his contracts? Some probably did. Some definitely did. Maybe the reason they spend so little time grappling with their own culpability is because they’re not that concerned about how their choice to work for McFarland to the bitter end impacted those around and beneath them in the social chain. They want forgiveness from a mass audience.
And they’ll certainly get it, which is a shame as Fyre was a great opportunity for a much more fascinating exploration of the way men like McFarland persist. He’s a mundane evil, a rich kid who made his living swindling people but was so stupid that his scams have constantly failed (resulting in a six-year sentence and very few fines he actually had to repay). Maybe the story is the way our system is broken to exploit the poor and let men like McFarland off the hook, and maybe a documentary like Fyre is part of perpetuating that system — letting the people who helped him every step of the way off the hook.
Will this hurt McFarland? Nah. Toward the end, as he hangs out in a luxury apartment awaiting trial, McFarland is still recording everything even as he starts a new scam selling tickets to luxury events via email. Events that don’t sell public tickets. He quickly makes over $100,000. Does it matter if he’s recorded doing it? Maybe being recorded doing it only makes him more likable — a curiosity, a man who will, as one subject of the documentary says, appear again in six years with another scheme and the name recognition to probably pull it off.
It’s shocking Fyre never once mentions Donald Trump, who will unquestionably go down in our nation’s history as our greatest American grifter — he who, like McFarland, made an empire for himself parading a fake lifestyle and promising a gold-covered vision of wealth to people just waiting in the wings to buy into it. Who regularly exploited the poor without ever paying them. Who is, well, currently exploiting our broad system of federal employees by not fucking paying them. And who will get away with it in the end.
Because ultimately audiences love a con man, and Fyre knows it. Forget the swindled workers and ruined lives; it’s about watching McFarland go to work. There is no effort made to question how an event like Fyre happens beyond broad platitudes like “Our new influencer culture is shallow and creates opportunities for this kind of fraud.” There’s nothing new about Influencer culture beyond the medium in which it exists — and it’s not only on Instagram.
When the movie ended, Netflix’s algorithm immediately prepared to auto-play Yummy Mummies, an Australian show about “wealthy, expectant mums trying to outdo one another in pre-birth rituals and bitching sessions.”
No thanks, but it’s nice to know the computers know us better than we do.