One lamentable aspect of the current epoch in American society is the dissolution of the so-called “American Dream”. The idea that hard work and perseverance will allow everyone to live a comfortable life with a plot of land, happy children, and ample leisure time has been shown, time and time again, to be nothing more than a marketing strategy.
How does one respond to this? What are the psychological effects on the people in a society where such a divide between promises and actions exists? In many ways, Fraud, directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp, doesn’t explicitly tackle this subject, but it’s difficult to watch it without seeing the modern western condition reflected back at us.
The documentary follows an unnamed family that, over the course of the film, commit various acts of fraud in order to maintain their way of living. Their lifestyle is not particularly extravagant — if anything, it’s downright middle class — but their impulses are consumerist to the extreme, and we watch as they accumulate more and more items, from pogo sticks to iPhones. In fact, many of the film’s bonding scenes seem to center around some sort of object, which the family plays with communally.
As the title implies, their life is a fraud, a social existence propped up by money that they can’t make without resorting to criminality. But the film’s social critique goes beyond that, and the film’s home-video by way of YouTube vlogging aesthetic is both a necessity production-wise and a smart artistic choice that wields a critique of it’s own. If it’s the spirit of America to accrue debt — whether it be mortgages or student loans — to conform or pursue some sort of higher social standing, it’s similarly our style to be conspicuous about our wealth, and that means broadcasting it on social media.
Fraud achieves much in its 52-minute runtime. Viewing the film critically, one sees the ways in which it indicts the material social realities that shape the lives of the characters. One can also admire how the film plays with modern concepts of post-truth in the age of Catfish (2010). Fraud is not merely an economic crime, it’s also the mode of being in the modern age. Everything, in some way, seems to be propped up by flimsy scaffolding that’s ultimately revealed to be even flimsier than we first thought. For evidence, just look at how the economy responded to the large-scale fraud in the mortgage industry circa 2007.
Ultimately, Fraud succeeds as a film because it manages to raise important questions about American culture and class in a way that’s uniquely American. It makes sense that an average family would do this, and it makes sense that it would be revealed through blurry web videos. It demystifies crime as the realm of bad people and reveals it to be the impulse of average people who just want what everyone else does.
It’s not a perfect film by any means, and at times it’s repetitive, but the overall experience and concept save and elevate the film. There’s a deeper level to the film as well, which I’ve largely sidestepped as a preventative measure against spoilers, but I urge those interested to track down Fraud, watch it, and then read an interview with Fleischer-Camp about the making of the film. (“Director Dean Fleischer-Camp on Fraud and Chicanery”, by Christine N. Ziemba, Paste, 10 December 20160
Fraud was preceded at the Boston Underground Film Festival screening by a documentary short titled Troll: A Southern Tale, which was directed by Marinah Janello. Troll follows a Southern musician as he talks about his worldview, online trolling, underground music, and experiences growing up in Mississippi. If Fraud addresses the ways that people cheat the system, Troll focuses on the ways that the system has completely deserted large groups of people.
Tony, the focus of the documentary, rails against the portrayal of the South by the mainstream media. Sitting in an abandoned building, Tony recounts how depressing it is to see people work at luxurious casinos that traffic in dreamlike indulgence only to go home to the reality of a trailer park. Though Tony is, by all accounts, a pretty bad guy, he’s interesting in the sense that his insight into class is astute. As far as companion pieces go, Troll almost feels like Side B of Fraud, only where the family in Fraud wants to keep up the illusion, Troll has no illusion.