Right out of the gate, Fyre Fraud has a few marks against it. Technically premiering a few days before Fyre on Netflix, there are some issues that aren’t fair to hold against it (for instance, that it’s trapped on the currently inferior platform, although one doesn’t have to read tea leaves to know that Netflix’s shrinking catalog and decreasing quality control could render this statement out of date any day now) and some that definitely are (Fyre never stoops so low that it uses stock footage to fill time in voiceover, or worse, playing out an entire scene from an episode of Family Guy as a kind of shorthand to demonstrate that, hey, sometimes lawyers are real jerks). But there are marks in its favor as well, most notably that it features an interview with Fyre founder and con man Billy McFarland, alongside its indictment not only of McFarland but larger “influencer” culture (again, gag) and makes larger statements against the kind of unethical behavior (I’d say “antics” but don’t want to minimize the impact) in which McFarland et al engaged, and how that can track to larger political movements.
To say that Fyre Fraud is constructed around its interview with McFarland isn’t quite accurate. Whereas Fyre had a narrative throughline that was largely chronological and structured its thesis around demonstrating that McFarland and company were not only woefully unprepared but inextricably crooked, Fyre Fraud is a bit more unfocused; it explicitly takes aim not only at the festival’s creators but its attendees (to a greater extent than Netflix’s film) and the larger sociocultural movements that have, as a side effect, opened up new areas of anxiety and taught us all new ways to compare our normal lives against the cultivated and curated fantasy lives of the nouvea célébrité and find ourselves lacking. As a text, it reads more like a collegiate essay in comparison to Fyre‘s performatively journalistic approach, a reach for relevance that exceeds the grasp of its vocabulary, a fact that is underlined by its aforementioned stock footage use; as a result, it would be easy to dismiss Fyre Fraud in comparison, but this would be a mistake, as it functions as a perfect companion piece to Fyre.
There’s duplication of content between both docs, as you would expect. In its early minutes, Fyre features blurry footage from a local news broadcast about McFarland’s previous failure Magnises, and from which the “black card for millennials” verbiage is drawn. The resolution of this footage was so low that I assumed it was from a webcast, but Fyre Fraud has this same footage in crystal clarity. The video of Fyre Festival attendees walking out onto the dark gravel beach to find hundreds of geodesic tents, video which perfectly encapsulates the moment when panic started to grow as they begin sprinting to claim a tent to call their own, also appears in both. But what Fyre Fraud infamously has that Fyre didn’t is an interview with McFarland himself. As NPR (and others) point out, this is ethically dubious given that McFarland demanded payment for his appearance, and Hulu apparently obliged, although no accurate figure has yet been provided. However, as Hulu noted in their own documentary, it is equally morally questionable that Jerry Media, who were involved with the marketing stunts for Fyre Festival and are potentially culpable for their participation in the scam of it all (admitting on camera in Fyre that, at the request of McFarland and Fyre CMO Grant Margolin, they deleted comments on social media posts that demanded response to issues of lack of facilities, payment issues, and other concerns), were producers on Netflix’s documentary. There are even mirrors and echoes between the two that aren’t exact but which reflect the way that all of these individual actions add up to a larger whole: Fyre saw Justin Liao extolling the virtues of destroying adjacent property to forestall having neighbors (despite his insincere, mealymouthed apologies across social media, which you can seek out if you so desire), but he manages to be outdone by “influencer” Alyssa Lynch, who may be one of the worst human beings on the planet in addition to being one of the few people who got the kind of living accommodations that they were promised. We see her self-shot phone video of her describing economy class as if she were asked to sit in steerage on a doomed ocean liner (also in Fyre) followed by her disingenuously saying that she felt “really bad” for those who ended up in tents–followed by an immediate cut to her gleefully dancing around her villa. Meanwhile, fellow festival goers were wandering around incomplete stages and unopened transport trucks.
Like Fyre, there’s much mirth to be had at the expense of all those involved (other than the unpaid laborers, both at home and abroad). Many of the attendees recall being plied with copious amounts of liquor, and we also see this on screen. One interviewee remembers stacks of unused lumber alongside pallets of alcohol, which made me chuckle. Obviously, there was a mass of spirits; alcohol usually doesn’t require any assembly, and if it does, the most complicated step is muddling. Another interviewee, when discussing McFarland’s ticketing scam that he attempted to run while released on bail, made the comment that “When you’re out on bail, that’s the time when you should be doing the least amount of crime,” which is hilarious in and of itself, but may have been an insight that McFarland needed, although it came too late. Oren Aks, a former Jerry Media employee who opened up about his experience on the inside of the media circus and criticized the company’s decision to deflect criticism, pointedly notes that the tent area at the festival was situated directly next to a 20-30 foot drop into a shallow pool of water: “They didn’t even think, ‘We need a fence’,” he says. Once you stop giggling at the ineptitude, you realize how lucky McFarland et al are to be facing jail time only fraud and not wrongful death or criminal negligence charges. And though no story shared by any participant in this documentary can top the revelation of what McFarland asked Andy King to do (as revealed in Fyre; if you’ve managed to miss the memes, I won’t be the one to spoil it for you), one of the participants here notes that there was a bulleted list of solutions (as we know, “[they’re] not a problems-focused group, [they’re] a solutions-oriented group”) that included “robbing customs,” which is about as absurd a thing as you can imagine, next to one of the blandly attractive male influencers recounting the events of the festival and ending his statement with “#rescuemission” and a frat boy chortle.
While watching Fyre with a group of friends, there was a discussion of McFarland and who he might really be, as we only see him in archival footage. A few of them noted that his actions, vacant stares, and frequent adherence to repetitive language made him seem like someone who might be on the autism spectrum; in discussion, I didn’t find this evidence particularly convincing or compelling – I saw “Billy” as having an innate understanding of the intersection between the need for personal validation through online visibility and the psychosocial need for a space that reinforces ingroup/outgroup mentality along the lines of wealth and prestige. His apparent vacuousness was merely the cocktail that resulted from mixing his own internal urges for validation with his cunning ability to take advantage of this hunger in others. With Fyre Fraud, my roommate and I were again in conflict over our interpretations of McFarland (it should be noted that neither of us is really trained for this kind of diagnosis; my MA is in rhetoric and composition and he is a PhD candidate in pure mathematics, so in the interest of full disclosure I should note that our armchair psychoanalysis is utterly unscientific and bound by our independent horizons of knowledge and experience). We each saw confirmation of our hypotheses regarding McFarland’s behavior on display in McFarland’s silences and inability to properly respond to straightforward questions about his business practices. My roommate saw evidence of spectrum behavior: poor eye contact and a lack of facial expression, speaking with an abnormal rhythm, repetition of words and phrases verbatim without indication of understanding, failure to express emotion and apparent unawareness of others’ feelings, and even difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues. On the other hand, I saw a practiced deflection and proof of the codified narcissistic sociopathy of privilege: McFarland was controlling, disingenuous, dishonest, possessed of an exaggeratedly positive self-image and a sense of entitlement, manipulative, pathological lying (when confronted in a discrepancy, he just clams up like a child caught in a lie and lets the silence hang in the air as if waiting for the interviewer to forget they had asked anything), lack of remorse or shame (Michael Swaigen, the cinematographer who shot the initial promotional video, tells a story about Billy, “removed from it all by many layers of glass,” asking him to help him shoot a documentary that would reframe him as a recovering victim), and a need for stimulation (as evidenced not only in his methodology but also the anecdote from a Fyre planner about McFarland storming out of a business meeting in which the impossibility of their task was being discussed so that he could hop onto an ATV and speeding up and down the beach before returning and resuming).
One of the first things that we learn about McFarland comes in the form of a letter from his mother, read by a text-to-speech program, in which she extols young Billy’s entrepreneurship and early academic success. This is such a small moment, but it speaks volumes: when writing about her indicted criminal son, Mrs. McFarland talks about what a “special boy” he was, which is not unusual in and of itself as this is something that all parents do, but the fact that her apparent go-to piece of evidence to demonstrate his exceptionalism is how quickly he could complete his multiplication tables speaks to a certain kind of parental pathology that tells us a lot about the environment that created (and creates) Billy McFarlands. It really only gets worse from there, as young Billy’s first “business” was utterly different from what most of us had to for pocket cash: no manual labor like mowing lawns or raking leaves, no early demonstrations of responsibility like babysitting or fundraising; instead, he inserted himself as a middleman in some kind of crayon racket as when he was seven or eight. The devil really is in the details here: his first customer/victim was a girl he had a crush on, and all he did was help her with a broken crayon. So not only did he not respond the way that most children are socialized to in the U.S. (i.e., sharing), his first instinct when confronted with the opportunity to help someone in whom he had an emotional investment was to take advantage of her. Is that nature? Is that nurture? Either way, it’s fucked up and reveals a lot about the man who would grow up to perpetrate one of the most unsubtle but effective con jobs of the decade marketing what one participant called a “perfect generic fantasia” that, as another notes, “went into breach [of contract] on day one.”
One of the oddest things that crops up over and over again were the number of people who describe McFarland as charismatic, magnetic, handsome, attractive, or some combination of the above. He’s certainly not unattractive but it boggles the mind that so many people would buy into his brand of deception, both of others and, ultimately, of himself. Perhaps Fyre Fraud‘s most damning screed is not merely against Billy, but against the society that creates and encourages people like him. It’s not just what one talking head called a “tsunami of schadenfreude” that we can mock and laugh at, until you hear the influencers attempt to justify their shallow existence by talking about the importance of spreading their ideals. When asked what these ideals are, the best one can come up with is “Um … positivity. And, um … Yeah.” It’s impossible to take them seriously, and yet people do. Kendall Jenner apparently received a quarter of a million dollars just for posting the orange square that was used for Fyre’s promotional material to her Instagram. If that doesn’t make you want to burn down everything that humanity has built and salt the earth, I don’t know what will. I recently saw a post online (that I wish I could find again) which perfectly encapsulates my personal viewpoint on this: “everything I ever learned about the Kardashians I did so against my will.” It’s not 100% accurate (no one ever forced me to watch The Soup, I did that of my own free will and would do it again, every week until I die, if E! gave me the opportunity), and perhaps I’ve turned into a curmudgeonly old man against my will and without realizing it. I was certainly a part of the first generation of kids on whom this media saturation was foisted; I can still hear the Disney announcer’s voice saying “and featuring Brink‘s Erik von Detten!” in my dreams. I’ve also fallen into a spiral in dark times when looking at someone else’s social media and comparing my life to this cherry-picked, filtered snapshot of the existence of someone else, but I always managed to drag myself back with the realization that my independent thought was more important and that it was self-defeating to envy the lives of people that, at the end of the day, I wouldn’t want to be. But not everyone has those same mental defenses, especially when an online presence and the accompanying glut of monetized “self”-expression has been a part of their lives from birth. It’s a house of cards that deserves mockery, but also needs to be demolished. Otherwise we might end up with a Billy McFarland in the White House one day. Oh, wait. Shit.
Ultimately, Fyre Fraud‘s most chilling lesson comes not from anything explicit in the text, but in how it so thoroughly depicts the inherent dangers of contemporary capitalism, in which money is moved from here to there and back again as investors throw funding at one project and then another, fully formed companies appearing from the ether like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus and absorbing mountains of cashless capital from venture capitalists and employing dozens or hundreds or thousands of people under the promise of future compensation that often never materializes. Despite spending much of its runtime mocking a subset of “millennials,” Fyre Fraud fails to acknowledge that trends away from employment in fields of manual labor and toward what we loosely call “knowledge work,” and that this is a generational movement as much as it is a cultural shift. Even our language is having a difficult time keeping up: when searching for the correct terminology for the opposite of manual labor, lists of antonyms were largely words with negative connotations–laziness, indolence, sedentariness. (I won’t get into the way that language influences thought since this really isn’t the place to dig deep into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but it bears mentioning that this linguistic antipathy toward work that yields less tangible results is probably not a separate phenomenon from intergenerational employment-oriented hostility.) That the Bahamanian laborers went unpaid despite the extensive labor they contributed to Fyre Festival, coupled with the way that Fyre Fraud makes explicit the fact that McFarland was constantly seeking money from his next venture to pay off his previous one in an endless 21st Century Ponzi ouroboros, reflects the terrifying reality that all our currency is fiat and we live our lives perched on a veeeeery thin membrane of shared belief in hypothetical capital that barely covers a deep, dark abyss. And that abyss just gets deeper and darker all the way down, sped along by the exultation of celebrity culture and rampant, unchecked greed; that the two so often function as two extensions of the same ideology, coupled with the current American political climate’s demonstration of how effective those two evils can be when they walk hand in hand, sent a shiver of existential dread down my spine, and it should scare you, too.