CNBC's American Greed Television Series Review
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CNBC's American Greed Television Series Review

CNBC's American Greed profiles the fascinating world of white collar crime. Episodes feature Ponzi schemes, financial fraud, art theft and other scams carried out by such infamous figures as Bernie Madoff, Martin Frankel, Scott Rothstein, Marcus Schrenker, Troy Titus, Bernie Ebbers, Dennis Kozlowski and Lou Pearlman.

The aptly-named American Greed airs weekly on CNBC. The documentary series focuses on Ponzi schemes, investment fraud, art forgery, embezzlement, counterfeiting and an array of other white collar crimes that have stained the American landscape in recent years. Now in its sixth season, American Greed reigns as the poster boy series for the old investment maxim: "If it sounds too good to be true then it probably is..."

American Greed Debuts in 2007

American Greed debuted on June 21, 2007, with the double feature "Hook, Line and Sucker" and "Maxfield Parish Art Heist." The first episode profiled the case of Barry Hunt, a con man who fleeced investors with his promises of riches in a non-existent fishing supply company. A fraudulent "fisher of men," Hunt carried out his classic Ponzi scheme in Exeter, New Hampshire, fleecing friends and acquaintances before fleeing to Las Vegas. Among his victims was investor Dr. John Riedel, who lost $140,000 to his old fishing buddy.

The second episode focused on the theft of two paintings by noted American artist Maxfield Parrish. Thieves cut a hole into the roof of the West Hollywood (California) Gallery one night and made off with the Parrish artwork, valued at a cool $4 million.

American Greed Narrated by Stacy Keach

Actor Stacy Keach (1941-) narrates every episode of American Greed. Keach's voice should be a familiar one to television viewers, as he has also narrated a host of episodes for Nova, National Geographic and PBS's American Experience, the latter of which included The Kennedys. Keach himself is no stranger to crime, having served nine months in the U.K.'s Reading Prison after pleading guilty to cocaine possession in 1984. No greed here, however, just a huge problem with chemical dependency, for which the actor later sought help.

Keach's narration is clinically professional, conveying just the right amount of indignation, bluster and irony. When Keach's voice is first heard in the opening sequence, prepare yourself for a tale of woe in the world of white collar crime.

Marcus Schrenker: Crash and Burn

Episode #29 "Crash and Burn: The Marcus Schrenker Story," originally telecast on March 17, 2010, is typical of American Greed. This segment profiles Marcus Schrenker, a young Indianapolis investment manager who operates Heritage Wealth Management. Schrenker tells his clients that he will manage their investments for a flat 1% fee. That promise, however, proves false as Schrenker places his clients' money in annuities and "low-risk" mutual funds, constantly "churning" their accounts in order to collect fat commissions. Later, Schrenker simply helps himself to his clients' money, buying homes, cars and planes in order to satisfy his unending pursuit of the good life.

The Schrenker case is telling in that it effectively illustrates the technique of "affinity" investing. Schrenker is an accomplished pilot, preying on a group of retired Delta Airlines pilots who share his love of flying and airplanes. When pitching his investments, Schrenker would often fly into Atlanta piloting his latest toy, duly impressing his pilot clients who would then open up their wallets to the genial con man.

Schrenker's financial fraud is eventually uncovered, with the "money wizard" fleeing Indiana in his single-engine Piper Malibu. Schrenker purposely crashes his plane short of the Gulf of Mexico (his intended target) near Milton, Alabama, but not before bailing out and eventually taking to the road on a stashed motorcycle. Schrenker's wild scheme to fake his death comes up way short, with law enforcement later nabbing the fugitive at a campground in Florida, where he had cut his wrists in a suicide attempt.

Ironically, Schrenker had consolidated his two investment companies under the title the Icon Group. Get it? I Con. Many of Schrenker's clients are fortunately able to recoup their money, an almost unheard of event in the world of investment fraud and Ponzi schemes. Following repeated requests to the insurance companies which Schrenker represented in his annuities scam, the ripped-off clients are able to recoup their money when the firms finally relent and send them their refund checks.

Marcus Schrenker - CNBC

American Greed: Bernie Madoff, Scott Rothstein, Lou Pearlman, Dennis Kozlowski & Other Scammers

American Greed's list of scammers is a long and sordid one. The Ponzi king himself – Bernie Madoff – is profiled, earning a special episode titled "Madoff Behind Bars," originally aired on August 25, 2010. Madoff operated the largest Ponzi scheme in American history, ruining lives and shattering fortunes as he stole billions from his unsuspecting clients. "Uncle Bernie" is currently doing a 150-year prison stretch at a federal correctional institution in Butner, North Carolina – in effect, a life sentence.  

A pair of infamous CEOs were also profiled in American Greed episodes: the disgraced Bernie Ebbers in "Inside WorldCom Scam" (3/5/08) and the equally disgraced Dennis Kozlowski in "Party's Over - Tyco's Kozlowski" (3/19/08). The latter segment features footage from Kozlowski's famous Roman toga party, where the CEO spared no expense in hosting one of the most bizarre galas in Wall Street history.

Other American Greed scammers featured through the years reads like a who's who in white collar crime. The list of infamy includes:

  • Martin Frankel in "The Martin Frankel Case" (1/30/08)
  • Dana Giacchetto in "Robbing Hollywood's A-List" (3/26/08)
  • Lou Pearlman in "Boy Band Mogul" (1/14/09)
  • Samuel Israel III in "Suicide Is Painless" (2/3/10)
  • Troy Titus in "Financial Guru Gone Bad" (1/26/11)
  • Henry Jones in "Fool's Gold" (2/2/11)
  • Scott Rothstein in "$1.2 Billion Scam: Ft. Lauderdale" (2/23/11)
  • Larry Selander in "The Art of the Steal" (4/6/11)

Several American Greed episodes are downright bizarre. One segment especially stands out: "Bank Robbing Broker" (1/19/11), which profiles the criminal case of Stephen Trantel. Once a respected New York commodities trader, husband and father, Trantel embarks on a bank robbing spree when his business goes south. He's eventually nabbed when one of his fingerprints shows up at a crime scene. Police are only able to ID the print because of a long-ago Trantel arrest for driving under the influence.

Scott Rothstein with his collection of expensive watches - CNBC

American Greed: Some People Will Do Anything For Money

American Greed, whose slogan is "Some People Will Do Anything For Money," is must-see TV. In fact, the series should be mandatory viewing for all investors – both large and small – as they navigate the often-dangerous world of money and investing. American Greed not only features the scammers and con men but the victims as well, many of whom lose their life savings. Nothing is sacred here, including several churches, whose God-fearing "Christian" leaders routinely defraud their flock through affinity investing.

American Greed is produced by Chicago-based Kurtis Productions. It's the one sure bet that American Greed will never run out of subject matter, as Ponzi schemes, investment fraud, medical scams, art forgery and the like will always be with us.

American Greed. Don't miss it, and hold on to your wallet!

Top Image

  • American Greed logo - CNBC

 Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner

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Comments (2)

A great review of an equally good TV series. One of my favorites.

I should watch this although it might make me depressed.