What Actual Scammers Had To Say About The Movies And TV Shows Portraying Them
Vote up the most interesting insights from these star scammers.
With so many new documentaries, podcasts, TV series, and films about con artists, 2022 seems to be the year of the scam. But the public has long been fascinated with scammers and grifters who manage to trick even the most unlikely of marks. From based-on-true-story shows like Inventing Anna, where a fake heiress cons Manhattan's upper crust, to documentaries like The Tinder Swindler, which follows a mysterious jet-setter who uses a dating app to scam women across Europe, these programs had us on the edge of our seats.
But what did the real people behind these stories think of it all? Some of the scammers were in cahoots with producers, and supported, participated in, and even financially benefitted from turning their story into entertainment. Others felt scammed themselves after watching a fake version of their story make millions for other people. In the end, it seems that watching some version of your tale be told to the entire world can lead to complicated feelings and side effects. Read on for the responses from scammers on the programs starring themselves.
- Photo: I Love You Phillip Morris / LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions
I Love You Phillip Morris follows the ill-fated romance between Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) and Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), who met in jail in 1995. When they were both paroled the same year, Russell conned his way into a CFO position at a medical insurance company, where he embezzled $800,000 to fund his and Morris's lavish lifestyle, supposedly unbeknownst to Morris. The scheme eventually landed the pair back in jail, but Russell managed to escape numerous times - attempting to reunite with Morris. Of the romance central to the film, Russell told The Guardian:
This is a love story… It's about what a person will do, who is in love, who can't see the forest for the trees…
I think it's a good title, I did those things because I wanted to be with Phillip. I was out of control.
Russell's four escapes were brazen. Twice he essentially walked out of prison (once using a green marker to dye his jumpsuit green to look like scrubs), while in one 10-month scheme he made himself appear to have AIDS and forged medical documents for his release. The escapes also were likely an embarrassment to the Texas institutions he fooled. It's this that he believes landed him a 100+ year prison sentence where he spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement for nonviolent crimes.
While the film received favorable critical praise, it struggled to find a distributor due to its sexually explicit scenes between the two main characters. The film was eventually re-edited to “tone down” its gay sex scenes. Carrey said his decision to do the film was a “no-brainer.”
Only able to watch clips of the film in media interviews, Russell said it looked “awesome,” adding that, “They've got it down… The way we speak, the mannerisms, the clothes - everything. It's surreal.” Meanwhile, after spending seven years in jail for crimes he allegedly had no part of, Morris distanced himself from Russell, telling Entertainment Weekly in 2010:
I love the man and always will… But I wish often I’d never met him… I truly believe that everything he did was out of love for me. And if I wasn’t one of the characters, I would absolutely love the movie. Living it, it’s been hell for 14 years.
Morris did say he was happy with the film portraying him as a victim, and with McGregor's portrayal as well:
Ewan's portrayal of me is just magnificent. He has my mannerisms, my voice down. Just the fact that he came to Arkansas and spent time with me, studied me, I was just so impressed. I can't tell him enough how honored and flattered I am - his portrayal of me is right on.
- Photo: The Wolf of Wall Street / Paramount Pictures Studios
Viewers were shocked and often appalled at the debauchery of the Martin Scorsese-directed film The Wolf of Wall Street. But according to the real-life Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), the true story was even wilder. Belfort, who spent about two years in prison for securities fraud, wrote a memoir about his experience, which the film was based on. As he told The Hollywood Reporter:
The drug use and the stuff with the hookers and the sales assistants and the sex in the office… that stuff is really, really accurate… In some respects, my life was even worse than that. Although I'd say I did more Quaaludes than cocaine.
Still, while many of the film's more unbelievable events are actually taken from Belfort's account, he clarified that a scene depicting domestic abuse didn't go down that way:
It was fictionalized at the end: I never punched my wife in the stomach. It was more of a struggle where she grabbed onto my leg and I kicked out. I was out of my mind. I was at the lowest point of my life. I’m not trying to minimize it; it was awful what I did. But it was under the [influence] of massive quantities of drugs.
After The Wolf of Wall Street's release, Belfort was criticized over the money he made for selling his story when he allegedly stills owes a large sum to his victims, while the movie and its creators were criticized for glamorizing his lifestyle (among many things). DiCaprio called it a "cautionary tale,” while Belfort said:
It’s laughable when people say [Scorsese is] glorifying my behavior, because the movie is so obviously an indictment. I could have easily been redeemed at the end of the film, because I am redeemed in real life, but [Scorsese] left all that out because he wanted to make a statement - and I respect that. Even though I’ll be the whipping boy for the world.
- Photo: Hustlers / STXfilms
Based on an article by journalist Jessica Pressler, Hustlers follows a group of exotic dancers led by Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez) who drug their wealthy Wall Street clientele and drain their bank accounts. The inspiration behind Vega's character is Samantha Barbash, who sued the film's production companies for defamation, but to no avail.
Barbash said she was offered $6,000 for her participation in Hustlers, but found the amount insulting for the rights to her story. She did later see the movie, saying that the fanfare made it impossible to avoid. Her take?
I wasn’t really that impressed… I was impressed with Jennifer. She was incredible. Her body looked incredible. She had it down to a T, but it wasn’t factual.
Barbash elaborated that she was no longer working as a stripper at the time she was accused of the crimes. She said that while the Vega character had some superficial similarities, like a birthmark and a lip piercing, Barbash added, “I am nothing like that in person.”
She also took issue with the crimes depicted in the film, particularly when it came to her drugging people:
The majority of the guys were drugging themselves. They wanted to party. Did the girls give them extra to keep partying? Probably, by all means. Did I drug anyone? Never in my life. Did I know the girls were doing it? One hundred percent. That’s why I got conspiracy charges.
As for the scene that shows Vega making her own specialty concoction, Barbash said:
First of all, there are drug dealers for that. Second of all, I would never know how to do anything like that. The concoction is unheard of… and making the drugs with her daughter in the house… I’m actually offended by that. That’s attacking my character. I’m a mother. My son is grown. But I’m still a mother.
Another central focus of the movie is the relationship between Vega and the character Destiny, based on Roselyn Keo. According to Barbash, "She wasn’t a friend - she was a coworker… There was no sisterhood - it was business and that’s it."
- Photo: Inventing Anna / Netflix
The fictional Netflix series Inventing Anna is based on Jessica Pressler's article for New York Magazine, "How Anna Delvey Tricked New York’s Party People." The show centers on con artist Anna Sorokin, AKA Anna Delvey, who pretends to be a wealthy German heiress and lives a luxurious Manhattan lifestyle while tricking banks, hotels, and the people around her into footing the bills.
The real Sorokin sold the rights to her life story for the series, and reportedly used the money (more than $300,000) to pay restitution and legal fees. Although she was released from prison in early 2021 after serving four years for her crimes, Sorokin was arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement shortly thereafter for overstaying her visa - an outcome she hadn't foreseen: "When I imagined the show being out, I thought I’d be out, but I’m still in jail."
Before Inventing Anna premiered, Sorokin wrote an essay for Business Insider about the series and her continued detention, saying:
…[I]t doesn't look like I'll be watching "Inventing Anna" anytime soon. Even if I were to pull some strings and make it happen, nothing about seeing a fictionalized version of myself in this criminal-insane-asylum setting sounds appealing to me.
I still remember the night of ABC's 20/20 episode about me in October… It's hard to explain what I hate about it. I just don't want to be trapped with these people dissecting my character, even though no one ever says anything bad. If anything, everyone's really encouraging, but in this cheap way and for all the wrong reasons. Like, they love all the clothes and boats and cash tips. I saw only the first couple minutes [of the 20/20 episode] before I went back into my cell. I was definitely not going to sit there and watch it with everybody.
After the show's debut, however, Sorokin watched at least some of it, telling Cosmopolitan, “I don't think I ordered people around as much. I think I'm more self-aware of the way I come across. Not all the time, but I just don't think I'm so brazen and shameless.”
The Anna portrayed on the show is quite unapologetic for her misdeeds throughout. When the real Sorokin was asked in a New York Times interview if she was now remorseful for her actions, she responded:
I feel sorry for the way my case is being perceived. And I feel sorry that I resorted to these actions that people think I’m glorifying now. I feel sorry for the choices I’ve made. Definitely, I don’t feel like the world would be a better place if people were just trying to be more like me.
- Photo: Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. / Netflix564 VOTES
Sarma Melngailis Thinks 'Bad Vegan' Trivialized Control Issues
The docuseries Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives follows vegan NYC foodie Sarma Melngailis and her relationship with the odd and mysterious Anthony Strangis, who claims to be working black ops for the government.
That's not the only dubious claim Strangis makes, however. He also tells Melngailis that he can make her and her dog immortal, persuading her to give all the money from her raw vegan restaurant to him, rather than paying her employees. The pair, who quietly married without telling anyone, ended up fleeing to Tennessee, where they were arrested after ordering a very non-vegan meal of Domino's chicken wings and pizza.
While Melngailis participated in the Netflix series, Strangis did not. His lawyer issued a statement saying:
[Anthony's] gone on to live his life. He’s got a job, uses his name, this is behind him and she’s behind him… Anthony is remorseful for the people at the restaurant that lost money and he took full responsibility for his part in that.
His lawyer added that Strangis didn't participate in the docuseries because he had moved past the events featured faster than his ex-wife did: “He pled guilty to it, he owned up to it and he did it long before Sarma did… His case was resolved probably close to a year before Sarma’s was.”
As for Melngailis, while she participated in the series, she evidently wasn't happy with the final product. She took issue with a seemingly reconciliatory phone call between her and Strangis at the end of the final episode, writing in a blog post: “…the call at the end was a staged call, recorded for the documentary, a small slice of which was misused to represent something that’s the opposite of true.”
Melngailis also spoke out about Netflix's promotional photos of her used for the show, namely one of her eating a cash salad. In an Instagram post, she wrote:
…I'll continue to speak out in objection to the mocking of psychological abuse by Netflix and the misportrayal of these kinds of stories in general. Me looking like a glamorized villain eating a cash salad is not me. It may help Netflix sensationalize the story, but at my expense, and at the expense of a greater understanding of the larger issues, including #coercivecontrol #narcissisticabuse #cultmindcontrol and more.
- Photo: The Imposter / Picturehouse Entertainment
Director Bart Layton's 2012 documentary The Imposter tells the unbelievable true story of Frédéric Bourdin, a career impersonator who, at age 23, managed to convince everyone he was missing 16-year-old Nicholas Barclay, despite having a different eye color and a French accent.
Barclay's family accepted Bourdin as the missing teen, as did authorities. It was only after Bourdin had been living with the Barclays for five months that a suspicious private investigator was finally able to uncover Bourdin's true identity.
Although he participated in the documentary and is featured in it, Bourdin seemed displeased with the final result, calling it “economical” with the truth. Without having watched it himself, he tweeted based on viewer responses:
They are magnifying my life and actions, why won't they leave me alone… I told the entire truth… I am not some “super-con” genius… I deserve respect because the truth is, I committed no crime that horrific... if I was a cold snake as painted in the movie, then I would not know the feeling of love. Love is what I've been looking for my entire life.
Layton was confused by Bourdin's response, stating:
I know he's attacking me and the film, but I'm completely baffled by it. If he'd seen the film and felt it was inaccurate or had twisted his words I'd listen to those accusations. I don't know what he's so furious about. Many viewers don't believe he comes across that badly.
Barclay is far from the only person Bourdin has impersonated over the years. He's reportedly assumed 500 different identities in his life, frequently posing as an orphaned/abandoned child. He claims his motive was to be placed in a home “where I could be loved.”