Fraud (Hot Docs Review)

The story behind Dean Fleischer-Camp’s documentary Fraud is an interesting one. The director is said to have stumbled upon footage on YouTube—over 100 hours worth—of a American middle-class family of four living out their lives in front of a video camera, but this isn’t just any wannabe reality story. Fleischer-Camp pared that footage down to a scant 52 minutes to paint a picture of a man and woman so materialistic, they would jeopardize their own freedom and their children’s future for the chance to spend, spend, spend.


The family of four—thirty-something parents and two young children both under the age of about seven—is introduced to the viewer on 5/26/12 (according to the camera’s date stamp). Little is known about the family other than what can put together through the footage: they live in a small, cluttered house, suggesting lower-middle-class, and they are obsessed with anything related to an affluent lifestyle. As their bills mount and their resources dwindle, the family takes desperate measures to improve their cash flow so they can live what they perceive to be the good life, consequences be damned. The film ends on 10/3/12.

Less than five minutes into Fraud, I had my hand raised, calling shenanigans (please forgive the granularity of the next paragraph; it’s in support of a greater point).

At the film’s start, The Man, who does 99% of what presents itself as around-the-clock filming, records The Woman reading a pair of bank notices. The first notice is a decline letter for a new credit card. The other is in reference to a bounced payment. I understand the narcissistic obsession that comes with self-recording, but that The Man would record something as humiliating to himself and his family as that, and The Woman wouldn’t object, felt like a stretch. Still, and despite any change in tenor to The Family’s mood, I allowed that maybe reaction shots and debates had been edited out. I allowed it, that is, until the next scene where, in the interest of raising money, The Family has a yard sale. By the time the dust settles, they take their loot and head off to several retailers, including an Apple store, where everyone in The Family scores a new iPhone.

I called shenanigans again. Their declined credit card application suggests they were maxed out on their existing plastic, and the bounced payment suggests they were cash-strapped too, leaving only their yard sale earnings to fuel their shopping spree. I’ve never known a yard to generate north of $1000 in a single afternoon, and while the quick cuts of the film don’t afford a good look at the wares on sale, The Family’s living conditions suggest they didn’t have anything of high value to begin with, nor did they have a high quantity of lower-value items to unload.

This sequence is a terrific example of the film’s strength—it moves fast—but it’s also emblematic of the film’s great, great problem: it strains credulity from start to finish. Even if the action in the first five minutes of the film is factual, it raises such an eyebrow that all subsequent moments become the subject of intense scrutiny. That scrutiny then helps expose other improbable actions and events, up to and including the crime the film is named after and the subsequent cover-up; blatant timeline discrepancies between when events actually happen and the time stamp of the video; more private, humiliating moments filmed without shame or objection; the complete absence of questions from people The Family interacts with; and, perhaps most unsettling, the lack of any sense of genuine emotion between The Man and The Woman (and by extension, The Kids). These two people are more like high school buddies than a committed couple, and not once did I believe they were emotionally involved with each other or their children.

By the end of the film, so many unbelievable events and moments and decisions had happened, I called shenanigans on all 52 minutes. In a world where anyone is capable of anything, and anyone is capable of filming anything they are capable of, the four months this family spends on a money-burning binge rang as improbable as anything can.

And yet I couldn’t stop thinking about the film after it was over…and the next day, too. Despite the superficiality of it, I couldn’t deny how mesmerizing it was. Part of this is because of the audacity of the director, but the other part of it, the larger part of it, is that while this so-called family might not have gone through those onscreen moments “in real life,” a lot of families in America have indeed suffered (or enjoyed, depending on how you look at it) some of those moments—living beyond their financial means, committing fraud, endangering children, you name it—all in the name of being able to spend money they otherwise wouldn’t normally have to spend. The nuclear (wasted) family Fleischer-Camp presents onscreen is like a composite of the unseemly denizens of an America obsessed with materialism and wealth, and it is chilling.

Therein lies the dilemma in terms of rating this film. As a documentary, it’s bad, and the title is apt. In fact, I wouldn’t even grant this specious work a “docudrama” moniker. But as a piece of visual art, effectively lean in runtime and edited with surgical precision, its statement on the skewed perceptions of the importance of money versus responsibility held by so many Americans, is like nothing I’ve seen before. That it achieves this without passing judgment makes it all the more impressive. Fraud is not a documentary about one family; it’s a reflection on a culture—a reflection that is as hard to look at as it is as hard to look away from.

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