The first episode of Season Two, which centers around the massive Wells Fargo fraud scandal, is a perfect example of the type of explainer-y journalism Dirty Money does so well. For people who follow financial news, flipping open the Wall Street Journal every morning or tuning into CNBC at the gym, the drama surrounding CEO John Stumpf is a widely known story, and the Dirty Money episode, directed by filmmaker Dan Krauss, makes ample use of available cable TV footage. We see Stumpf chatting it up with Jim Cramer during laudatory interviews on Mad Money and various talking heads praising the bank for its folksy charm, its humble stagecoach origin story, and its relative sturdiness during the 2008 financial crisis. Then the actual workers at the company begin to tell their stories, describing a culture of constant pressure and predatory business practices.
Why is it calming? Like Gibney's 2005 Enron documentary, which I have a perhaps unhealthy obsession with, or his entertaining adaptation of Lawrence Writght's nonfiction book about Scientology, Going Clear, Dirty Money makes complicated real-life narratives feel like something you can wrap your head around. They deliver a perhaps illusionary jolt of authority. Again, podcasts often offer a similar transaction: Give us an hour of your time and we'll make you an expert.
If you watch enough episodes of Dirty Money, it's easy to come to the conclusion that capitalism is broken in some profound way. At the same time, the series only occasionally grapples with whether the horrible exploitation it portrays is an inevitable result of the current conditions of the global economy; the smooth aesthetics of the show, the helpful animation and the lighting of the interviews, help sell an idea of competence. It's not an especially hopeful show, but the heroes of Dirty Money tend to believe in the guiding power of regulation and the rule of law. The money isn't the problem, you see -- it's the dirt.