The “spectacular grift” documentary is a subgenre of the (particularly Netflix) true crime genre that is threatening to overshadow its originator. In rapid succession we have had Inventing Anna (about the fake German heiress Anna Delvey, who took most of Manhattan’s elite for a ride), The Dropout (the story of the biotech entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, who built the multi-billion dollar firm Theranos on the back of fraudulent claims, and The Tinder Swindler (about pretty much exactly what it said on the tin).
And now we have Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives (Netflix), the story of how one woman was so gullible that she let a man she met online persuade her to drain $2m from her Manhattan raw-vegan restaurant, because he claimed he could make her beloved dog Leon immortal.
That, at least, is – roughly – the marketing headline. Variations on it made the actual headlines too, during the weeks when restaurateur Sarma Melngailis went, again as the media had it, on the run with Anthony Strangis (who was then her husband), while owing large sums of money to various investors and her staff. However, it was – would you believe – a bit more complicated than that, as this unhurried but fascinating four-part documentary does a fine and careful job of explaining. The bulk of it comprises an extensive interview with Melngailis herself. Her account is supplemented by testimony from family members, staff, friends and investors (not that all those roles were mutually exclusive – she seems to have been generally loved and respected by those who knew her before Strangis appeared on the scene). They watched with increasing confusion and powerlessness as the catastrophe unfolded.
Melngailis, an astute, hardworking businesswoman and former financier at Bear Stearns was riding high on the success of her restaurant and other outlets specialising in vegan raw food (I know – apparently not a thing they just made up for that episode of Sex and the City). But she was at a low point in her personal life when she met Strangis online. Although he was then calling himself Shane Fox, possibly to distance himself from the wife and child he had left behind and the legal trouble he had caused by impersonating a cop and committing grand theft. I wouldn’t start rolling your eyes just yet. You really need to pace yourself for this one.
She fell in love with him online, she says, and although he looked a bit heavier when they met in person, she thought it would be shallow to let that affect her feelings for the man. She didn’t see too much of him anyway – as a black ops specialist (he hinted), he was always off travelling to places and situations he couldn’t divulge. Occasionally, he would ask her to wire him money to get him out of tight spots while he was away. She complied, eventually, with staff wages and other money taken illegally out of the business.
Gradually, he built an increasingly bizarre alternative reality around her, giving her to understand that they were being constantly surveilled by his malevolent big brother, and that some semi-mafiaesque, semi-divine entity called “The Family” required her to prove her faith in him in order to protect her. All she had to do was obey his orders and wire him any sum of money he asked for without question, and she would ascend to some ineffable “next level”, securing her own and Leon’s immortality.
Recordings of their conversations show him furiously berating her, and when she does stand up to him, we hear her doing so in the flat, affectless voice of the already-beaten. Those with any experience or knowledge of psychologically abusive and coercively controlling relationships (Strangis was also isolating her from colleagues, friends and family) will find much that is familiar in her story and in their conversations. Whether, even then, you can quite believe how far Strangis was able to move her window of normality is a question probably every viewer will answer slightly differently.
This is very much Melngailis’s show and she is allowed to skate too easily away from whether, when and how she could have – should have – realised what he was doing, and escaped his clutches. Is it victim-blaming to pose those questions? Or is understanding how someone – especially someone with every social and educational advantage – can be so brainwashed by a bully the very essence of the matter?
At the very end – too little, too late really – the idea is floated that the marriage actually began as a ploy by Melngailis, to ensure Strangis paid off her restaurant debts – as he had promised early in their relationship. So, another possible reality emerges to compete with the multiple others constructed by Strangis during their time together, by the footage of recollections from Melngailis and others, by the media in various incarnations throughout the whole saga. Who knows precisely where the truth lies? I suppose if Leon outlives us all we’ll have an answer.