Lords of Scam is another true crime documentary from Netflix, only this time the crime was in the abstract: hundreds of millions of euros skimmed from financial loopholes in the EU’s Emissions Trading System. A bunch of French guys lived like lords on their ill-gotten profits until the bickering began, the cops came snooping, and the murders started happening.
The Gist: From the lofty goals of the 1992 Kyoto Protocol came the ability for European companies to buy and sell offsets on carbon emissions levels. But who collects the taxes from a company that doesn’t actually exist? Beginning in 2008, a group of French hustlers, business owners, and big money financiers embarked on a scheme to fleece the hundreds of millions of euros derived from the Value Added Tax (VAT) applied on transactions within the European Union Emissions Trading System, and the money got so good that they became fabulously, stupidly wealthy overnight. Asked about his role in the scheme now, a few years into his eight-year prison beef, Mardouche “Marco” Mouly will laugh, gesticulate wildly, and simply say he was a fifth wheel, by no means a mastermind. “I go where it smells good!” the gangly, convivial Frenchman says. He grew up street-smart in the rough Parisian neighborhood of Belleville, an illiterate immigrant from Tunis who nevertheless learned how to talk, how to hustle. (“That’s where I learned how to be a wheeler-dealer.”) And before long, he was the face man for a den of carbon tax thieves operating on a global scale.
Lords of Scam interviews Marco extensively as he races sports cars and holds court about town, all under the conditions of his work-release program. We also meet friends and co-conspirators, people like Greg Zaoui and Dominique Ghez, guys who’ll call Marco their BFF as quickly as they deride him. “When Marco shows up, nothing ever survives.” The activities of another accomplice, wealthy financier Arnaud Mimran, are described from a distance, since he’s also doing time, and the mechanics of the group’s scheme are explained as their timeline of deceit, rise to riches, and downfall in a clash of jealousies and investigations by the authorities is detailed. Years later, there’s a lot of finger-pointing and role-diminishing; the feeling seems to be that the system allowed their grift, they paid a stiff price, and now they’ve moved on. Still, it’s tougher to diminish the unsolved murders of two of their associates, as well as the billions and billions of euros in financial damage their racket caused the governments of France and other EU nations.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of? Lords of Scam director Guillaume Nicloux notably won best screenplay honors at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival for his satiric exercise The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq. Meanwhile, it’s the financial market shenanigans and brazen spending of Wolf of Wall Street that comes to mind throughout Scam — Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film is even namechecked by the scammers themselves.
Performance Worth Watching: Chatterbox, comedian, flamboyant wheeler-dealer, lovable scoundrel — whatever you call him, whatever he calls himself, Lords of Scam never tires of emphasizing how much Marco Mouly is all of these things simultaneously. Oh, and he might also be an accessory to murder. But come on! A guy’s gotta make a living.
Memorable Dialogue: A journalist lays out what lies at the core of Marco and his fellow scammers’ troubles with both the thugs and the law. “Once their fortune was made, you might expect these guys to go on the run, disappear, go spend their money discreetly on a beach in Costa Rica. No way! Everyone in Paris is getting agitated. Guys are getting out their knives to try and find and skin them, and they’re wearing fur coats, flashing their cash. That’s the whole problem. They didn’t know how to keep a low profile.”
Sex and Skin: Nothing overt, beyond the harsh glare of Las Vegas nightlife excess and paparazzi-style footage of Arnaud Mimran canoodling on European beaches with his Italian ladyfriend.
Our Take: Bringing more than a little of his “Tunis deviousness” to the proceedings in Lords of Scam, Marco Mouly is definitely the kind of personality to build a documentary around. With his wide nose and expressive eyes, long limbs filling the frame, and penchant for sidelong comedy, the former street hustler, spender of stacks of cash, and current nightly resident of La Sante Prison is as argumentative about what he did do as he is about what he didn’t. He seems to suggest that the people caught up in a magazine ad scheme from early in his criminal career were nothing more than suckers; he also says he didn’t even know what carbon was, even as the ill-gotten gains rolled in. “I just knew how to talk to bankers.” Even as the questions continue about his role in the death of a close friend and accomplice, Marco speaks like a man who’s almost too proud of the life he’s led, criminal or otherwise. He even takes a stretch HUMMER limo back to prison each night.
As for the intricacies of this group’s VAT robbing, and how it related to the EUMTS, trading exchanges, and the malleable financial sanctuaries of Singapore, Hong Kong, or Dubai, Lords of Scam rightly only sketches the operation’s vast digital reach before bringing it back to the personalities at hand. Of the thriving marketplace for money making in 2008, Greg Zaoui says, “the only thing anyone was interested in was collecting VAT without paying it.” But this Scam won’t diffuse any rage you might feel about moneyed interests’ ability to skate on the laws we’re all supposed to abide by. The sentences handed out to Marco and the others are mostly light, the French police, prosecutors, and judges interviewed essentially admit that they got played, and financial entities like the environmental trading exchange set up to trade CO2 mostly put on a hot dog suit and say “We’re all trying to find the guy who did this.” Maybe Marco had it right along, gallivanting from Israel, to Rome, and to Switzerland before authorities finally extradited him back to France. “Well, it’s over. They got me.” Greed and graft is everywhere — might as well spend whatever you can get.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Lords of Scam offers a look at financial trickery and profit to the tune of billions through the eyes of some real characters, some of whom are almost relatable.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges
Watch Lords of Scam on Netflix