Film The Visual

How "Hustlers" and "Parasite" Illuminate the Modern Scam Economy

"Hustlers" and "Parasite" illustrate that scamming is increasingly our tragicomic reality.

Hustlers, directed by Lorene Scafaria, and Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho, are among a recent wave of films that address class warfare. However, these two stand apart for the light they shine on a unique aspect of late capitalism: the scam. Both use the subversive pleasure of the scam to deliver a stark portrait of our economic condition, especially as experienced by families struggling to survive. The protagonists pursue scams to escape economic squeeze, but ultimately find it’s another way the system keeps the underclass down and divided.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that scamming — deceiving to make a profit — has taken popular culture by storm. Media fascination with the scam ramped up in 2017, when the fraudulent Fyre Festival created by socialite-wannabe Billy MacFarland went viral. More recent con jobs have included tech startup CEO Elizabeth Holmes’ sham blood testing company Theranos, the unmasking of Anna Delvey, a Russian-born woman who infiltrated New York’s wealthiest circles by pretending to be a German heiress, and instagram influencer Caroline Calloway’s tour of bogus “creativity workshops.” Most of these stories have prompted film or television adaptations, tapping in to the pleasure of both watching the scammer game the system and witnessing their downfall. We often perceive them as underdogs and are captivated by the sheer audacity and gutsiness of a con, even we don’t agree with the actions or motivations. As Amanda Hess notes in the New York Times, “there’s a reason we call them con artists.” 

Hustlers, based on a 2015 New York Magazine article, leans in to the guilty pleasure of the scam to deliver a powerful story of female antiheroes. It stars Jennifer Lopez as Ramona, a veteran stripper who takes young Destiny, played by Constance Wu, under her wing and shows her the ropes at a strip club that caters to men on Wall Street. The film begins in 2007, when Destiny and the other dancers experience the same cash flow as their clients on Wall Street. In that year, Destiny makes “more than a surgeon,” and pays off her grandma’s debt. When the financial crash hits, it’s simply no longer the lucrative business it used to be. Both Destiny and Ramona are single mothers, and to avoid working in minimum wage jobs, they turn to illegal means: drugging men, running up their credit cards at the club, and splitting the proceeds. As a moral justification, Ramona points to the rigged American economic system: “We got to start thinking like these Wall Street guys. You see what they did to this country? They stole from everybody. Hard-working people lost everything. And not one of these douchebags went to jail, not one. Is that fair?” 

It’s not — and yes, it’s wrong to steal — but we can’t help rooting for them as they regain financial security by conning the men who stole it from them. We egg them on, energized by their boldness and the giddy thrill of watching them put one over on the rich, who are portrayed as interchangeable, entitled club goers. But we also root for them because the film puts a spotlight on the latent hypocrisy when it comes to what society considers immoral and illegal. Compared to Wall Street’s con of the American people (to the tune of billions of dollars), their hustle is harmless. “You ever think about when they come in to the club?” Ramona asks. “That’s stolen money. That’s what’s paying for their blowjobs — the fucking firefighters retirement fund.”

The film holds the two cons up next to one another, but then makes clear how ridiculous that comparison is in the first place. Ramona and Destiny are pushed into scam after being shut out of or unable to make enough money through minimum wage work. When Destiny interviews for a job in retail, her interviewer suspiciously asks what she did for five years at Sin City Cabaret. “Bartending,” she lies. Ramona takes on a job in retail, but the work is inflexible for her lifestyle as a single mom. Her boss refuses to budge when she asks for a schedule change so she can take care of her daughter, arguing that the reason she can’t pay for child care is because she’s always “running off” to take care of her kid — as if her lack of commitment, not her minimum wage salary, is the reason she can’t pay for a babysitter. 

The structure of Hustlers also makes it clear from early in the film that the relationship between Destiny and Ramona, and their con, are doomed. The story is told through an interview between Destiny and a stand in for New York Magazine reporter Jessica Pressler (played by Julia Stiles). The end leaves open the possibility that their friendship could be repaired, but the interview structure constantly reminds us that the scam ultimately divides them, failing to deliver the wealth Destiny and Ramona dreamt of — but it also robs them of the support and security they sought in one another. At the height of their scamming success, Ramona, Destiny, and the other dancers shared Christmas together as a family, revelling in the security they’d achieved. Once they are facing police charges, Destiny takes a plea deal to avoid jail time, selling the others out. 

Parasite, too, uses the thrill and inherent risks of a scam to deliver a portrait of class inequality that’s equal parts comic and bloody. The film pits the grifter Kim family, who live in a subterranean apartment, against the wealthy Park family, who live in a beautiful, open-concept home on a hill. The movie begins with the Kims attempting to poach a Wi-Fi connection off their neighbors (the first of many references to their “parasitic” existence) and taking on a job folding pizza boxes in order to make a buck. The Kims’ lot changes when their son, Ki-woo, played by Choi Woo-shik, lands a job as an English tutor for the Parks’ daughter. He doesn’t have the university credentials, so his sister, Ki-jeong, played by Park So-dam, forges them. Taking advantage of the Parks’ naivete, the Kim family repeats the con, eventually replacing the rest of the Parks’ staff.  

Throughout the film, Bong Joon-ho creates a visual language of class warfare, in everything from elevation to weather. Almost every scene includes stairs, reminding the viewer over and over again that this is an “upstairs-downstairs” story. There are frequent shots of the hill leading up to the Parks front gate, and the stairs leading up to the house itself, underscoring that the family lives high above the rabble. Midway through, the Kims squat in the Parks’ house while they’re out for a camping trip, but they’re forced to flee when the Parks unexpectedly end their trip due to a storm. Once they’ve escaped, we follow the Kims as they descend down, down, down into the depths of Seoul in the rain. At home, their apartment is completely flooded. To one family, the rain is a minor inconvenience. To the other, it’s devastating.

As with the strippers in Hustlers, the Kims are a band of antiheros that dismantle the trope of the humble, deserving poor. Like Ramona and Destiny, the Kims see a crack in the firewall between financial struggle and security and go all in. However ridiculous and unsustainable the scam is, the audience respects the perverse “fake it till you make it” ethos that pervades. But unlike the Wall Street boogeymen in Hustlers, the rich Park family are not uniformly reprehensible. John Semley writes in the Baffler: “While the Parks are rich and dopey … they’re never really all that bad or openly mean. Likewise, the intruding Kims are wily and vulgarly funny, but never particularly likeable. We root for them as we might root for a team of bank robbers in a heist movie — our hope that they “get away with it” tempered by a competing desire to see them punished.” 

Perhaps the most powerful part of of Parasite is that it is not a story of feel-good class solidarity. The Kims are not only unlikeable, they’re greedy and protective of their scamming success. Instead of helping out or uniting with the Park’s former servants when given the chance, the Kims war with them to maintain the position in the house they’ve established. We learn the old housekeeper was also running a grift over the Parks. When the former housekeeper pleas with the Kim mother, Chung-sook (played by Jang Hye-jin), for her help “as a fellow member of the needy,” Chung-sook refuses. Instead she shames her for turning to deception in order to protect and help her family survive. 

The struggle between the Kims and this other underclass family turns extremely violent, then tragic. Bong Joon-ho spares no drama: In one wide range shot, we watch the two families kick and punch each other, looking in from the Parks’ sweeping living room window as music blares. It’s intra-class warfare in the most literal sense. The Kims eventually sequester the Parks’ former servants in the basement (down many flights of, you guessed it, stairs), but that’s not the end of the divisiveness. The Parks’ former housekeeper dies at the hands of the Kims, Ki-jeong is violently killed by the husband of the Parks’ former housekeeper, and the Kim father, Ki-taek, (played by Song Kang-ho), stabs the Park father to death. Ki-taek is forced to go into hiding. In the end, the Kims still live in their subterranean apartment, but have two fewer family members.

The characters in Parasite and in Hustlers, in all their unadorned humanity, dramatize the way our globalized, post-industrial economy pushes families to the brink — and beyond. With inadequate economic and social safety nets, barriers to mobility and education, and sky-high inequality, it’s no wonder the con has taken off. As Jia Tolentino argues in her essay “A Generation in Seven Scams,” economic success today is modeled on the gig and startup economy — glorifying savvy upstarts who create affordable goods and services by relying on minimum-wage labor and providing no-benefit jobs. This is itself a con, but a socially acceptable one. It’s the most vivid example that, for a select few, scamming pays. 

Tolentino comments, “if you’re super lucky, if everyone likes you, if you’ve got hustle, you might end up making millions. Similarly, if you’re super lucky, if everyone likes you, if you can get GoFundMe to go viral, you might end up being able to pay for your insulin, or your leg surgery after a bike accident, or your $10,000 hospital bill after giving birth.” Without a clear sense of how we can change this economic situation, hairbrained schemes to subvert the system seem less and less hairbrained. The fact that we, as viewers, grapple with this reality feeds our appetite for scammer content. Where we once saw a world of distance between the con artist and ourselves, these movies illustrate that scamming is increasingly our tragicomic reality. 

In Hustlers, it’s clear that hustling is only sustainable if you’re wealthy, college educated, and work in a socially acceptable industry. In Parasite, the scam is viable as long as they can shut out, and keep out, their fellow members of the lower class. Where most stories about con artists highlight the actions of one, usually already-wealthy individual, Hustlers and Parasite reinforce how far grifting has worked its way into the economic status quo by applying it to the context of family, and illustrating how spectacularly it fails as a method of protection and survival. In the end, the con leaves the families in both films more divided and broken than before. They have fallen victim to the system’s number one modus operandi: pit friend against friend, worker against worker, family against family.

Eloise Goldsmith is a progressive political organizer and writer living in New York City.