‘Gunther’s Millions’ review: The worst kind of Netflix doc
From its first trailer, Gunther’s Millions lures viewers in with an enchanting premise: A dashing dog is an heir to a massive fortune of $400 million and lives in the lap of luxury, meaning Madonna’s Miami mansion, with meals of steak and gold flake.
What a good boy. What a whimsical concept! What an unproblematic millionaire! But Gunther’s Millions — despite its title winking to a charming screwball comedy (Opens in a new window)— is not fun or enthralling. It’s the latest tedious and infuriating true-crime release from Netflix. In this case, it’s an overlong docu-series that swiftly shifts focus from the adorable and affluent dog to the fame-hungry hangers-on, more tenacious than fleas, and the master who pulls at their leashes.
What’s Gunther’s Millions about?
Like Spuds Mackenzie, but weirder.
Directed by Emilie Dumay and Aurelien Leturgie, Gunther’s Millions is a four-part documentary series that recounts the outrageous tale of a German Shepherd named Gunther VI, who was reportedly awarded a trust fund of many millions of dollars upon the death of his owner, a widowed countess with no living relatives. In episode 1, “Lucky Dog,” the Netflix series flings audiences into the luxurious (and absurd) lifestyle of this preposterously wealthy pup, introducing us to his polished PR rep, his overeager spokesperson, his bemused personal chef, his steely lawyer, all while unfurling generous B-roll of the canine nonchalantly strolling through the grand grounds of his Tuscany villa.
Gunther’s employees beam as if they’re competing on Wheel of Fortune as they spin the stories of his fortune and its rules. They insist that the bulk of his money goes to things he likes. For instance. Gunther likes boating, so they say. Thus, he owns a massive yacht. Maybe a second is needed. Presumably, because the dog also hankers for variety?
There is a sense of whimsy in this section, like when fashion-model-turned-dog-spokesperson Lee Dahlberg recounts how he worried he’d be unfit for the role of representing a mysterious German millionaire. “I don’t speak German,” he warned, adding with a goofy grin, “Neither does Gunther!” There’s a joy in imagining ours is a world where such an eccentric millionaire can exist, cuddled in the lap of luxury of cashmere dog beds. But something sinister creeps in as this unblinkingly beaming man confesses with alarming enthusiasm, “I wanted to be a tick on that dog’s ass for the rest of my life!”
His confidence in such candor suggests this line goes over great at cocktail parties, perhaps even those thrown by Gunther. But it’s also a red flag here, one of many that warns this docu-series is less about an incredible dog and more about the humans who flock to build and maintain his legend, whatever the cost.
Gunther’s Millions is a frustrating bait-and-switch.
Maurizio Mian, his ex-wife Carla Riccitelli, and his boss dog, Gunther.
Dumay and Leturgie invite us to roll our eyes at the self-serving soundbites issued by Gunther’s minions, who paint themselves in turn as happy-go-lucky, ambitious, or oblivious. Likewise, the filmmakers urge us to scowl when these subjects squirm over questions that aren’t so fluffy. When talk turns to the “cult” that was allegedly fostered in Miami under the direction of Maurizio Mian, the trust holder of Gunther’s estate, the interviewees laugh uncomfortably or look worried, asking the documentarians directly if they’re supposed to speak of these things. It seems Dumay and Leturgie aren’t playing by Gunther’s rules, and admittedly there’s a thrill in the seeming transgression of that.
Gunter’s story is an epic that it weaves in a wannabe pop group, a scientific study about the sex lives of hot young people, decoy dogs, eugenics, financial fraud, animal abuse, tabloid fodder, reality TV jewelry, and a tragic backstory for the canine’s namesake. But, at its core, this is all about Mian. As anyone who considers the question of a dog multi-millionaire might guess, given a few moments to ponder, Gunther’s story is a load of bunk, and he is its creator.
Episodes 2 through 4 thrust viewers into the many lives and loves (and lies) of Mian. We’ll meet his ex-wife, whose gusto and mischievousness makes her feel like a role Lady Gaga would sink her veneers into. We’ll meet a baby mama who put up with a wildly bizarre publicity stunt. And we’ll meet a cocky, tattooed stud who smirkingly introduces himself as “god,” though he’s actually Fabrizio Corona(Opens in a new window), an Italian reality TV star who has mastered the art of the captivating confessional interview. It’s little wonder he’s played as one of the cliffhangers from one episode to the next.
There’s no reason Gunther’s Millions needs to be four episodes long.
Fabrizio Corona, crushing the confessional interview in “Gunther’s Millions.”
A common complaint about Netflix’s true-crime docu-series is that they’re not necessarily as long as the story itself needs to be, but as long as the filmmakers can possibly stretch them — presumably so Netflix can make the most out of counting those minutes watched. In this case, I was actually screaming by the time episode 3 eked out another irritating cliffhanger of a barely intriguing question to setup the fourth and final episode. I was convinced this story was over, and yet on it dragged.
Dumay and Leturgie string audiences along by overindulging in story beats. Interview subjects concur and concur and concur over an abundance of B-roll footage and dubious re-enactment shots, as if they’re worried you might be playing on your phone or making a sandwich. In this way, the plot crawls along like a wounded snail. Perhaps we’re meant to be caught up in the kooky characters and scandal, as so many were with Tiger King, but Gunther’s Millions has nothing as scandalous as murder plots and no one as chaotically mesmerizing as Joe Exotic.
Instead, it has Mian, who grumbles and spews bald-faced lies, all with the same sullen expression. Yet, Gunther’s Millions treats Mian’s evident ennui as a big revelation in episode 3! And yet it dodges a far more curious question.
Was Gunther’s Millions funded by Maurizio Mian?
Lee Dahlberg compares himself to a tick in “Gunther’s Millions.”
At one point, Corona turns to the camera and asks the filmmakers directly if they’re working for Mian, and they don’t answer. The docu-series uses this concerning lack of transparency to their advantage, by brewing intrigue. It seems like the most logical explanation for why several subjects seem genuinely shocked when the filmmakers ask about Mian’s shadiest deals, or why some are so cavalier as to laugh about how something they just said could get them arrested — perhaps they believe it won’t make the final cut. Could this be why Mian himself confesses to fraud, albeit on a hot mic à la The Jinx(Opens in a new window)?
Even in the finale’s mid-credits, they reveal him lying blatantly again, confessing that this abject falsehood would spice up the story. Is he producing the film officially? Or is he a man of so much power, privilege, and influence that he assumes he can impress his will upon whoever comes across his path?
Mashable reached out to Netflix to clarify if Mian is a producer or funder on the docu-series, and a representative from the streaming service said he is neither.
Whatever Mian’s involvement (or lack thereof), I’m not sure it matters, because to this man the truth doesn’t matter. Seemingly, above all else, he just wants attention, for better or worse. In this way, I was reminded of Voyeur(Opens in a new window), a truly thought-provoking Netflix documentary about a man who confesses to decades’ worth of titillating trespasses, eventually becoming the subject of Gay Talese’s book The Voyeur’s Motel. Over the course of Voyeur, filmmakers Myles Kane and Josh Koury unravel the subject’s confessions to reveal he may be lying purely for the spotlight his tales provide.
However, Koury and Kane engage with the troubling questions of what that attention-seeking behavior may mean — for the subject, those interested in him, and human nature itself. In Gunther’s Millions, serious topics are treated like splashy hashtags with achingly little insight. Further frustrating, the filmmakers provide re-enactment footage for things in the first three episodes they reveal later to be totally fictitious, essentially giving credibility to Mian’s lies before debunking them as a big reveal.
In this way, I walked away from Gunther’s Millions reminded of the worst true-crime doc I’ve seen on Netflix, Don’t F*ck With Cats.(Opens in a new window) (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve steered clear of Joe Berlinger’s releases since his awful Ted Bundy series(Opens in a new window), so perhaps I’ve missed some that were even worse.) In Don’t F*ck With Cats, director Mark Lewis lures in viewers with the promise of web sleuths righteously seeking justice for the felines tortured in anonymous online videos, before taking a hard turn into an even more disturbingly grisly crime without warning. Finally, to top it off, Lewis gets huffy about the viewer’s interest in such content, offering a condemning speech about the grim interest in homicide stories when that’s not even what we logged on for, to begin with!
Gunther’s Millions‘s bait-and-switch isn’t as grotesque, though there are some parallels; it also begins with the appealing ploy of an animal story, then spins into a true-crime tale about a deceitful man who’s ravenous for attention. Within this tricky framework, with all its flashy bells and whistles of scandals and sex and cults, and all its ready-to-divulge interviews, Gunther’s Millions should be…something. It should be interesting, challenging, or even shocking. But for much of its runtime, its reveals feel strange and superficial, until a bleak final chapter that’s just sad. This true-crime docu-series is ultimately a gallingly dumb waste of time.
Gunther’s Millions premieres on Netflix Feb. 1.