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Formulaic style over substance: King of Stonks is a show of its time

A new Netflix show about tech-bro chaos and indulgence is topical and current. It's also completely played out

Thomas Schubert (centre) as Felix Armand in German mini-series King of Stonks. Photo: Netflix

I noticed a while ago that it seemed every interesting magazine article I read was becoming a television show. The Girl From Plainville dramatises an Esquire investigation into the teenage girl who goaded her boyfriend into suicide. Inventing Anna was spurred by an NY Magazine story. Candy, a Texas Monthly longread about a mousy housewife murdering her love rival.

Sadly my own journalism is not the kind which lends itself to big-budget
adaptation, but it was still a sort of thrill to hear that a formerly workaday
writer might find themselves richer than God just by having done their job. It made sense, too, when I thought about it; the new way of watching was
dependent on a totally incontinent flood of stuff. Streaming services were
intuitively understood not to be simply a new method of watching television
(that is, to choose what to watch out of a curated selection) but rather something else, a white noise blare of ceaseless content which, despite the
promise of an attuned algorithm to sort it all out for you, became a source of ambient guilty anxiety. People my age will often go back to their parents’ houses and feel immense relaxation at the terrestrial telly. “The ad breaks are heaven, you can go and do something during them,” my friend confided in me lately.

King of Stonks is a show of its time in every way – a narrative drawn in part
from journalist exposés, a title taken from a meme (an image of a computer-generated featureless man beside indecipherable stock-market movement, captioned “STONKS”, a satisfying shorthand way of expressing how little any of us know about the seemingly unstoppable and yet entirely unknowable forces of economy which govern all of our lives), and its concerning subject
matter a flurry of tech-bro chaos and indulgence, a story about money which is created from nothing but sheer will. It’s a fictional tale, but draws from the real-life scandal of Wirecard, a German financial services provider dogged by accusations of impropriety since its foundation and which eventually imploded after a series of Financial Times investigative articles. In our story, the company is CableCash, who do basically the same thing as WireCard, from the services rendered to the nature of the fraud to the aura of distaste created by an association with pornography.

Our hero is Felix (Thomas Schubert), a somewhat charmless workaholic and aspiring CEO of the rapidly expanding CableCash, a dream only somewhat hampered by the fact the rapid expansion is related mostly to the fantastical bluff of the far more charismatic boss Magnus (Matthias Brandt) rather than
material success. The company’s relationship with two porn barons is leaked in the press while they try to secure the soothing legitimacy of a large government contract, and soon the castle in the air begins to crumble as evidence of their mafia connections and widescale fraud threaten to emerge. What we have here is an unsuccessful mix of several types of story we are already familiar with. One, the nerdish genius whose lack of personality only makes him more driven toward gargantuan success (The Social Network). Two, rich guys are insane and it’s all a bit funny and exciting (The Wolf of Wall Street). Three, in this foolish modern age, clever shucksters can earn a fortune on promises alone (WeCrashed, The Dropout).

It isn’t that there’s nothing to enjoy about these films and programmes, but “rich people be crazy, isn’t money very complicated altogether” is pretty thin gruel when you try to wring too much from it. Almost six hours cumulatively is definitely too much, particularly when the main character is quite purposefully both boring and unlikeable. There’s nothing to sympathise with Felix about, but he doesn’t even have the decency to be a compelling bad guy either. His egomaniac boss Magnus should be more diverting but is in effect totally generic, spouting soundbytes about Elon’s follower count. It’s topical, it’s current, it’s completely played out.

The visual and emotional atmosphere of King of Stonks is clearly aspiring to the zippy, glib sort which characterised The Big Short, another film about boundless greed and incomprehensible financial mechanisms. Both works confront you knowingly with the ostensible dullness of their subject matter. Hey, they say, we know banks are boring but how about if we splice a bunch of high-octane clips of blow jobs and buildings blowing up and call it quits?
There is a lot of surface-level guff and not a lot of substance, much like the
featured financial gurus. The problem with taking events from life and making them into entertainment is that there must be a reason to do so, some urge to know more about the who and the why. Events which exist in reality may be momentous and involve large amounts of money but that doesn’t make them good stories automatically. It’s characters, people, who make good stories, and events should serve to illuminate the nature of people rather than the other way around.

King of Stonks is streaming now on Netflix

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