Jared Kushner's tenants are "Davids going up against Goliath" in Netflix's "Dirty Money"

"They have everything to lose and nothing to gain other than to tell the truth of their ordeals," say the directors

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published March 13, 2020 7:00PM (EDT)

Jared Kushner in "Dirty Money" (Netflix)
Jared Kushner in "Dirty Money" (Netflix)

In the "Slumlord Millionaire" episode of Netflix's second season of "Dirty Money" — a series of "untold stories of scandal, financial malfeasance, and corruption" from executive producer Alex Gibney — Jared Kushner's shady business dealings are brought to light. 

Kushner, who is classified in the episode as a "tier-one predator," took over the Kushner Companies after his father, Charles, went to prison for trying to blackmail his sister with a videotape of her husband having sex with a prostitute. 

As Salon's Igor Derysh reports, much of the episode focuses on "construction harassment," as the Kushner Companies' regularly tried to push tenants out of their apartments by launching unnecessary all-hours, deafening restoration projects — think 2 a.m. drilling on the top floors or dragging equipment up and down stairs. Then, once the tenants finally had enough and moved out, the company would then legitimately renovate and re-rent the apartments at a tremendous markup. 

Documentary filmmakers Morgan Pehme and Dan DiMauro directed the episode and spoke to me about how they framed financial crime for television, the challenges of getting the whistleblower and tenants to speak out, and how difficult it was to actually find archival footage of Kushner.  

You guys last collaborated on the documentary "Get Me Roger Stone," which released worldwide on Netflix in 2017; how did you all come to work together again on this episode of "Dirty Money"? 

Dan DiMauro: We're collaborators. We've worked on some things in the past, "Get Me Roger Stone" was the first documentary we collaborated on. We're working on a few other projects, and we were friends with Alex Gibney, so we floated this idea about doing a doc about Jared Kushner because, in so many ways, he is the second-most powerful person in the White House after the president and he has such a large portfolio. So, we thought it would be valuable to kind of understand the experiences that shaped who he is as a person and how he conducted himself as CEO of his family business, to perhaps gain some insight into how he is conducting his policymaking at the highest level of our government. 

Knowing that "Slumlord Millionaire" was part of an episodic series, did that at all change your process in creating it — as opposed to if it was a standalone documentary? 

Morgan Pehme: We actually had a very clear vision of what we wanted to show on screen before we shot a single frame. You know, "Get Me Roger Stone" took us five and and a half years to make; that was a very bizarre, unfolding journey where we kind of went where it took us. 

We were so drawn to Alec MacGillis' reporting out of Maryland, and the advocacy work of Councilman Ritchie Torres and Housing Rights Initiative Founder, Aaron Carr here in New York City, that we knew that would be the backbone of what we shot. We also knew that it was so important for us to bring the tenants' experience to the forefront. 

You know, I think the only difference had it been a standalone documentary would have been the runtime, but this was one of those times when you write it down on the page and it pretty much stays intact by the time it reaches the screen. 

I feel like it is really difficult sometimes to present media about financial — or what some would classify as white-collar crime — in a way that is exciting. That definitely wasn't the case for "Slumlord Millionaire." What considerations did you make, if any, to ensure that it was compelling for the average viewer? 

DiMauro: This series, "Dirty Money," does a really incredible job of taking these somewhat academic, white-collar crimes — corporate malfeasance-type issues — and translating them into entertaining, informative visual products. When we thought of this issue, we thought of some of the other episodes in Season 1 and we really felt like the way to resonate the stories was through the people that were most affected by the business practices and business model that Jared Kushner had put in place at Kushner Companies.

Also, we wanted to show that the awful experiences of these tenants — and what they had gone through with their landlord, Kushner — you can zoom out from there. There's this kind of school of thought that business people are going to make good politicians or good leaders. And certainly, that was the thought process with President Trump. But at the same time, you have to remember that business people, their first priority is maximizing profit. 

And when you're making policy in government, you really should be approaching it with how it affects regular people. Like, what are the effects of that policy? 

When you look at how Jared conducted himself as CEO of his companies, it seems that regular people were reduced to just numbers on a page. So we thought that could be insightful for how we could view how Kushner is perhaps conducting himself in the White House.

Do you remember the biggest roadblock in your initial reporting on the case? What was the biggest breakthrough? 

Pehme: As I was saying, we had down on the page what we knew we wanted and we were, by and large, able to translate that to the screen. I would say that two of the main challenges that we face were, first, convincing the whistleblower in our episode to participate. Of course, any situation where you have a person who is jeopardizing their livelihood, jeopardizing their career to speak out, that has to be approached with great sensitivity, and it took a lot of convincing and trust-building in order to get the whistleblower to participate. 

The other was getting the tenants to participate. I mean, they are truly the Davids going up against Goliath in this fight; they have everything to lose and nothing to gain other than to tell the truth of their ordeals. 

We literally went to Jared's housing complexes in Maryland and just knocked on doors, asking people if they had a story. And it was amazing how many people's experiences were the same, but there were very few people who were willing to put themselves at risk by telling them and so in the credits, we thank the tenants for their courage because we know this was a dicey thing for them to do. 

Getting the most vulnerable people to participate, that was the greatest challenge for this episode and we're really grateful to them, for telling people around the world their stories. 

DiMauro:  What Morgan said is absolutely right and has more consequence, but just from a technical standpoint, when we thought of this idea, we wondered if there was much archival footage of Jared because, as some people may know, there, there's been this running joke on John Oliver's HBO show that no one's ever even heard Jared's voice. He would show clips of Jared, and Gilbert Godfrey does the voice underneath, and he'd say, "You don't even know that's not his voice because you've never heard his voice." But thanks to the researchers on our team, we were able to unearth a lot of footage from before his tenure in the White House. 

So, I'm guessing the footage of his father, Charles, was easier to pull?

Pehme: No, it actually wasn't! Some of the largest archives of the trial coverage, we ultimately weren't even able to crack into because they were collected by local New Jersey stations and they just had not been preserved in that way. I even saw that Andrea Bernstein, who wrote a great book recently on the Kushner family, was really blown away by the footage we had of Bill Clinton and Charles Kushner. So, you know, that was a real detective case for us. Dan is a great archival researcher in his own right, and it certainly took a lot of effort on our own behalf to unearth all that footage. I do think that it's likely that we've seen every scrap of footage of Jared and his family that is accessible at this moment. 

What do you hope average viewers take away from this episode? 

Pehme: As Dan was saying, Jared has — not just an enormous effect upon American lives — but on everybody around the world because of America's outside influence. I think that first people should understand the totality of Jared's experiences and understand how they inform his policy-making in the White House. 

But I also think we need to look at policy on a human level; we need to understand that when we read about policy in the newspaper, when we hear prescriptions from the government, it's important for us to understand how they affect everyday Americans and people around the world. We need to put a human face on policy, and I hope that people will be more cognizant of how these policies are not just campaign slogans or White House press releases. 

"Dirty Money" Season 2, including the episode "Slumlord Millionaire," is currently streaming on Netflix.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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