Picture this: motivated by resentment and greed, a group runs an organized operation to drug and manipulate victims so they can steal large amounts of their money. Now ask: “Are the perpetrators of this scheme good, or evil?”
According to “Hustlers,” a film premiering this September starring Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez, those people were good. It’s their victims who are the bad guys.
This comedy-drama is loosely based on the real-life story of Roselyn Keo and Samantha Barbash. Its source material, according to Rolling Stone, is a 2015 New York Magazine profile of the criminals written by Jessica Pressler.
Following the 2008 recession, Keo and Barbash assembled a squad of prostitutes and strippers. They texted contacts on Keo’s “Get Money” list, or went “fishing” for men in upscale bars. After seducing their target into a night out, they would get him drunk and run up his credit cards. If he was not so easily persuaded, the girls would put “just a sprinkle” of MDMA and ketamine in his drink.
“It sounds so bad to say that we were, like, drugging people,” Keo told New York Magazine. “But it was, like, normal.”
Keo, Barbash, and their posse got rich by scamming men for years. They manipulated some victims to stay quiet, threatening them with incriminating photos. Many didn’t tell the police because they were married or didn’t want embarrassing publicity. The tabloids ridiculed victims who were uncovered. The police also often didn’t take the claims seriously. As two strippers say in the trailer for the movie:
“What if someone calls the cops?”
“And says what? ‘I spent $5,000 at a strip club. Send help’?”
Eventually, one man convinced a scammer to confess–and recorded it. Still, authorities struggled to get other victims to come forward. “Men don’t want to admit to being victimized by women,” one officer said. But finally, in 2014, they were able to arrest four of the women for conspiracy, grand larceny, forgery, and assault.
The women later took plea deals, and got off with virtually no jail time and probation.
“Modern Robin Hood”
These women have tried to excuse their crimes by blaming their victims. They were, in Pressler’s words, “(mostly) rich, (usually) disgusting,” and “(in their minds) pathetic.” They wouldn’t miss the stolen money (“What’s an extra $20,000 to them?” Keo said). They have blamed it on their bad circumstances, using their own supposed victimization as an excuse to victimize others.
In real life and in the trailer, these women gloat about their manipulation. And yet, Pressler sympathizes with Keo in her article. She paints Keo as, at once, a sophisticated entrepreneur, feminist Robin Hood, and a benign, hard-working single mom.
It is only when common sense and empathy are thrown out that non-consensual drugging and theft can be seen as worthy of celebration. Maybe their rich victims don’t deserve much sympathy. But these women surely don’t deserve any praise for drugging and taking advantage of them.
Crime as Empowerment
It is impossible to critique “Hustlers” based only on the two-minute trailer, released in July. But its trailer and the article it draws from indicate that, despite all its glamorous production value, it will portray the women’s heartless, entitled behavior as empowering.
“American culture is a little f*cked up. You know?” Keo mused in Pressler’s article.
On that point, Keo is right. Shameless manipulation and theft for personal greed can apparently be glorified in a star-studded movie. To go even deeper, it is also worth noting that “Hustlers” features the “acting talent” of rapper Cardi B–who has herself admitted to drugging and robbing men.
It is a perverse double standard to believe the women in “Hustlers” are justified because their victims are rich “assholes.” But today, there is growing acceptance of this selfish disregard for other people. This year’s trend of people covertly licking ice cream tubs in supermarkets, thirsty for social media attention, is another example.
With Hollywood celebrating theft as heroism, we can only guess the strange future that awaits us. The hedonistic erosion of any principles besides “do what you want” will leave us all worse off.