The 90s were a time of freedom and excess; the US economy was booming, unemployment was down, and there were a growing number of forward-thinking entrepreneurs fuelled by the advent of the digital age. Essentially, the decade was a capitalist playground.
It’s no surprise then that the 90s also saw the rise of the ultimate capitalist model: multi-level marketing (MLM) schemes and their promise of effortless wealth. For anyone who has ever been tempted by claims of financial freedom, instant success and the promise of a debt-free existence, the world of On Becoming a God in Central Florida is familiar territory.
Economist John Maynard Keynes once said, “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the wickedest of men will do the wickedest of things for the greater good of everyone.” At the very heart of 90s capitalist ideology lay the American Dream, offering those at the bottom of the pecking order the chance to move upwards, as long as they were prepared to work hard enough. But what if you could reap the reward without the effort? MLMs claimed to offer ordinary people all the economic and social advantage of achieving the American Dream, without the backbreaking work.
Enter Founders American Merchandise (FAM), and its leader Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine). From the moment Garbeau appears on screen, the line between conman and businessman blurs as he entices hopeful Americans to join his cult-like movement. His undeniable charm is almost as irresistible as the possibility of financial independence offered to those willing to pledge their allegiance to his method. The process is simple: get unsuspecting people to sell your product, encourage them to recruit others to join the scheme and funnel profits to those at the top of the pyramid. Once sucked in, it becomes clear that FAM is much more than a get-rich-quick scheme; it is a spiritual veneration of wealth.
After her husband Travis (Alexander Skarsgård) was swept up in the world of FAM, lost their life savings and was eaten by an alligator (it’s Florida, remember?), struggling single mum Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) sets about exposing the fraudulent scheme that drove her family to ruin. Embedding herself deep within the world that brainwashed her husband, Krystal takes on Travis’ former clients, embraces the philosophy of FAM and makes it her mission to meet Obie Garbeau II in person, forcing him to face the victims of his deception.
As with all good satire, however, Krystal’s approach is laced with irony. In her attempt to reclaim what was taken from her and franchise her passion for Jazzercise, Krystal becomes fixated on meeting the man responsible for her family’s financial demise, seducing, manipulating and exploiting those around her on her path to revenge. As her story unfolds, it becomes clear that Krystal’s initial quest to take down FAM and all it stands for is taking as much away from her as the scheme ever did.
Set to an eclectic soundtrack featuring everything from Enya to The Pointer Sisters and the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, On Becoming a God in Central Florida doles out laughter alongside tense drama, providing an immersive look into the bizarre and unsettling world of hustle culture.
Watch the trailer now:
On Becoming a God in Central Florida starts on Thursday, 21 November at SBS On Demand, and on SBS with a special double episode at 8:30pm. Remaining episodes will air at 9:30pm weekly thereafter.
Ron Howard calls into the The Playlist studio from the Rome Film Festival, to talk about his new documentary, 'Pavarotti', about the life and loves of Luciano Pavarotti. Elsewhere he tells Fiona about what he has been watching (in what little time he has to spare whilst making three movies simultaneously), and why, as a director, he feels compelled to make a conscious effort to mix up his movie choices.