The biggest problem with Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason’s Hulu documentary Fyre Fraud is that they seem aware of the larger issues Fyre Festival presented with regards to scams in the social media age, but they’re determined to keep everything light as if they might scare away people who just want the schadenfreude of watching rich millennials get scammed. The documentary never really reconciles that conflict, which is a shame because when Fyre Fraud gets serious, it asks some hard questions about modern advertising, social media, “FOMO” (fear of missing out), and millennial culture. It may not provide the deepest look at how Fyre Festival went so wrong (for that you should watch Netflix’s Fyre), but at least it explores the larger ramifications of what Fyre Festival means for our culture.
Rather than explore the details of how Fyre Festival went so wrong, Fyre Fraud makes a brief introduction showing that Fyre Festival was a debacle and loosely follows the series of events that made it fall apart. But its full attention is cast on the nature of Fyre CEO and festival organizer Billy McFarland, the scam artist who ran cons in a desperate attempt to be a mogul. But for Fyre Fraud, there’s plenty of blame to go around, including Jerry Media, the social media marketing company that took the money and asked no questions, McFarland’s business partner Ja Rule, and the influencer culture where identity and brand become interchangeable.
In terms of content, Fyre Fraud feels professional in terms of sitting down with journalists to explore the cultural and historical issues at play rather than just trying to get the organizers to defend their actions or tell us how Fyre Festival unfolded behind the scenes. There’s a bit of talking to the people behind the scenes, and of course, there’s also talking to McFarland, who was paid to be interviewed. Unfortunately, the McFarland interview is a waste since he doesn’t open up or really show any contrition or remorse for his actions. It seems like they sat him down for an eight-hour interview just so they could have footage of him being evasive, which isn’t really worth it for a guy who has already defrauded countless people, not just rich millennials.
And working off the notion that only rich millennials were largely hurt is where Fyre Fraud’s thoughtfulness begins to ring hollow. For all of its careful observations about the role of social media in our culture and how it can be weaponized to serve fraudsters who prey on our fantasies, Fyre Fraud misses a large swath of victims from the Fyre Festival. There’s a bit of text near the end acknowledging the day laborers and other Bahamians who never received compensation for the work they did, but whereas Fyre fully acknowledges that cost and is sympathetic to it, Fyre Fraud is more interested in what the con means to American society and the Millennial generation.
Of course, no documentary can capture every angle and every viewpoint, but where Fyre Fraud gets a bit icky is in how glib it can be towards what happened. The only reason we can remotely laugh at Fyre Festival is that, by some miracle, no one died or was seriously injured. The cost seems small, but Fyre Fraud is at odds with itself when it wants us to take the culture cost seriously while also weaving in comic elements of stock footage, The Office clips, and more. It all lends the documentary a vibe that we should take the situation seriously, but not too seriously as if we stopped having fun we would stop paying attention, which is a disservice to the audience.
With a bit more polish and a bit more confidence, Fyre Fraud would be a powerful documentary that used Fyre Festival as a springboard for a more incisive examination of fraud in the age of social media, using the festival as a metaphor for expectations versus reality, which (as my wife astutely pointed out), is a mirror for how social media tends to function. Instead, Fyre Fraud is content to exist as a dark comedy of sorts, poking fun at the players involved without really absorbing the seriousness or gravity of their actions.
Click here for a review of Netflix’s competing Fyre Festival documentary, Fyre.