Truly we are living in the golden age of the grifter. From Fyre Fest to the WeWork empire to Theranos to the personal development cult NXIVM, we see a charismatic person promising us endless growth, pleasure or wealth and we give them all our money.
The con-man economy doesn’t just stop at the men and women leading these frauds and profiting wildly from them. (Some of them go to jail, yes, but WeWork leader/charlatan Adam Neumann was paid many millions of dollars just to go away.) There is also now a podcast, usually sponsored by a security system, for every con.
There’s a 10-part series on the ‘orgasm cult’ One Taste, an 11-part series on multilevel marketing wellness scams (The Dream), a 10-part series on the ‘Hollywood Con Queen’ who lured random actors, make-up artists and trainers to Indonesia for filmmaking jobs that didn’t actually exist and then had them driven around Jakarta to look at its main tourist attractions, like some terrifyingly insistent tourism bureau (Chameleon). There are so many con artists working today, it allows for a weekly show that takes on one new fraudster every episode, which would be fun except, like 98 percent of all podcasts these days, it’s always excruciatingly just a couple of ‘comedians’ sitting around reading Wikipedia entries about specific cases to one another and laughing at their own bad jokes (Scam Goddess).
We love listening to these stories so we can think to ourselves, yeah, there’s absolutely no way I would be that dumb and fall for something like that, then we go and invest in Tesla stock believing we are acting entirely rationally.
The best of these podcasts has to be Trickster, about the grandfather of all these frauds, the man who was so good at conning the world that, even once it was revealed through an extensive journalistic investigation that he was a fake, every couple of years we entirely forget he was a liar, start reading his books again and have to re-remember that it’s all made up. That would be the ‘anthropologist of shamans’ Carlos Castaneda.
As shown in this extensively researched series, Castaneda didn’t just live a mysterious life of deception and deceit, his afterlife — including the disappearance of his heirs, mismanagement of his estate and the suspicious death of his ‘spiritual’ daughter — is equally bizarre. Trickster, which has released all of season one with more to come, thoughtfully untangles the story of a man who tried hard to obfuscate his origins, and who got wealthy by inventing the wise shaman ‘Don Juan’ whose stories he purported to tell in his bestselling and hugely influential books.
The only questions that remain are how exactly he managed to convince people he was from Brazil despite not speaking Portuguese, or why no one in the anthropology department of his university questioned the fact that Don Juan would talk only to Castaneda. Why do we often prefer lies to the truth, and why do we so often trust our intuition when clearly our intuition is a gullible idiot?
Every podcast about cons eventually comes down to the same thing: we get significantly dumber when we are flattered. Castaneda got hugely rich and famous by telling an entire generation in the late 1960s, including his followers Oliver Stone, Jim Morrison, and George Lucas, that yes, they were being extremely brave and important by being ‘artists’ and doing drugs. (Why they think a Yaqui native sorcerer wants to dispense career advice to rich Americans is beyond my ken.) You want someone’s money? Tell them what they want to hear. In The Orgasm Cult, that’s that your sexual satisfaction as women is important both on the spiritual plane and in a geopolitical kind of way, or in The Dream, that you can make endless money by ripping off your friends.
Most of the other grifter podcasts rely heavily on the entertainment potential of the misfortunes of others. Hey, did something humiliating and destabilizing and tragic happen to you? Great, we’re going to find three comedians to retell your story as a joke and speculate on how you probably deserved what you got. Trickster pushes past that to focus on why the whole world got drawn into one man’s lies, and why we were so desperate to believe what he was saying. The cultural impact and improvement inspired by Castaneda’s con is still up for debate, and probably depends heavily on whether or not you see the Doors as a blight on the artistic landscape, but the real-world consequences, including dead women and stolen money and ruined reputations, are significant. I can’t wait for season two.