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Photo: ‘Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King’
Company Founder Dead, Details Later
I have a love-hate relationship with documentaries. The process of making a good documentary is not the same as what goes into making a good fiction narrative, and while there are documentary filmmakers out there with distinct voices, like Michael Moore, Errol Morris, and Werner Herzog, the genre is usually workmanlike in production. I have to admit, though, that some of the most powerful films and TV shows I’ve ever seen have been documentaries. I’m also aware that “true crime” documentaries are especially popular with viewers, and if you’re into that sort of thing, then ‘Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King’ will satiate your appetite — for a little bit. At 90 minutes, and feeling even shorter than it actually is, this is a bite-size movie about a big player in the world of cryptocurrency, and how his untimely death left a community of crypto enthusiasts baffled.
‘Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King’
Gerry Cotten was the co-founder (alongside Michael Patryn) of QuadrigaCX, a now-defunct Canadian cryptocurrency exchange that lasted from 2013 to 2019. QuadrigaCX seemed to be a successful exchange, with over 100,000 customers buying and selling crypto at the time of its shutting down, and the reason for its shutting down was as simple as it was sudden: Cotten, who had apparently been running the company from his laptop, had died.
Cotten was only 30 years old at the time of his passing, and his death struck many people as quite conspicuous; aside from a will, which he had written mere weeks before his death, he left no documents or clues as to the inner workings of his own company. Equally conspicuous is that Cotten’s death was only announced publicly one month after the fact — and with his death, the death of QuadrigaCX, with about $250 million (Canadian) suddenly locked out of investors’ wallets. Why? Because nobody could access the money; indeed, nobody could access Cotten’s laptop, since he didn’t leave any passwords lying around.
Not even Jennifer Robertson, Cotten’s widow, knew how to log into his laptop, or even knew any details about her late husband’s business. Cotten had died abroad, in India, in December 2018 (on my birthday, believe it or not), and no autopsy was performed on the body. While Cotten seemed to have succumbed to a quick but natural illness, this is a story that does not leave all spectators convinced of its authenticity. The movie follows several crypto enthusiasts, a few financial professionals, and Jennifer Robertson’s sister as they try to pick apart the tangled web of Gerry Cotten’s demise.
Some Bad Actors Play the Blame Game
The first problem one runs into with ‘Trust No One’ is that it is somewhat misleading; for one thing, Gerry Cotten was not a crypto “king” — at most, something akin to a baron, or an unusually wealthy landlord. Cotten himself is rather a shady figure, and the movie doesn’t do much to enlighten us as to the life story of this man; he seemed to be like a lot of crypto enthusiasts: geeky, white, well-to-do, male, and probably suffering from paranoid delusions. Naturally, people with a similar mindset to Cotten’s were quick to suspect something fishy was going on. Did he kill himself? Was he murdered? Did he fake his own death? A quick Google search will tell us that Cotten did, in fact, pass away in December 2018, and the filmmakers behind ‘Trust No One’ are surely aware that it’s very hard to “spoil” a documentary.
The movie does something that I would consider less than noble: it leads the viewer into adopting a paranoiac mindset, only to dismantle such conspiratorial thinking. On the one hand, the move implicitly condemning the actions of the amateur sleuths who serve as a portion of the interviewees is a righteous position, and had the filmmakers zeroed in on this knocking-down-a-peg, I would recommend it a good deal more eagerly. My goodness, one of the interviewees is an anonymous source who dons a fox mask and a voice modulator; this is the kind of material that’s ripe for the picking.
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Unfortunately, the two-pronged investigation of Gerry Cotten (who currently does not even have his own Wikipedia page) and the toxic culture surrounding cryptocurrency results in a narrative that does not all have that much to say about either. The problem that any documentary in the digital age must face is that a fact check is only a couple of clicks away; there isn’t a great deal of motivation to watch a 90-minute movie about a certain topic if you can just read about said topic through an online source or two. With all this said, I don’t think ‘Trust No One’ fully manages to justify its own existence; it’s mostly a bunch of talking heads in empty rooms, without the direction of someone who is personally invested in the drama.
The real shame here is that the meat-and-potatoes approach to conducting interviews and shooting B-roll could be forgiven, if only wiser decisions had been made in the editing room — which, after all, is where about 90% of any documentary happens. I’m even reminded of another Netflix documentary that came out recently, ‘The Andy Warhol Diaries’, which despite not having the most compelling B-roll, and despite giving interviewees the usual “talking heads” treatment, retained a strong presence because it kept its eyes on the prize: it’s subject. ‘Trust No One’, meanwhile, could have focused far more on the crypto investors who were basically scammed out of millions (whole life savings, in some cases), but it does not commit to what is (in my opinion, anyway) the stronger subject matter.
A Fine Dish, But a Meager Serving
A lot can be said about the ever-changing and evolving crypto market, with cryptocurrency now having become inextricably widespread in the mainstream consciousness. My own key issue with crypto is that it is such a volatile market that the value of say, Bitcoin, or Ethereum, could skyrocket or plummet overnight — and indeed, the market took a sizable hit when QuadrigaCX shut down. In the case of QuadrigaCX, thousands of wealthy investors put far more money than they should have into a company that, as it turned out, did not even keep the investments safe in a “cold wallet.” Where did the money go? It’s still a mystery, and ‘Trust No One’ doesn’t give a clear answer as to what could have happened with the money.
As far as we can tell, Cotten (along with co-founder Michael Patryn, who already had a record of white-collar crime) was a con artist who scammed investors out of millions of dollars before meeting an end that surprised everybody — including himself, almost certainly. The investors (who are not entirely unsympathetic people, mind you) are like children who wanted to play in the street, not caring about the possibility of a car speeding around the corner; they really should have known better, but you do have to feel sorry for them. I suppose my big takeaway from ‘Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King’ is that it’s like the main course for a late-night meal that sounds appetizing when you’re reading the menu, but you also have to lament the fact that the servings are just too small.
‘Trust No One: The Hunt for the Crypto King’ is available to stream on Netflix.
By Brian Collins
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