Documentaries used to be easy: a shot of a guy with facial hair driving his car; some sort of Expo where people are behaving oddly; a pop-punk song that’s a bit on the nose; and a doomed attempt to set up a legacy celebrity. That’s what I used to like: grainy film footage, fuzzes of sound, filming on a windy day. Ideally, it would win an award from an academy you have never heard of. Michael Moore would turn up at some point wearing a big T-shirt and a hat.
This is no longer the case Documentaries are big business now, with budgets and cachet. This has ruined documentaries for a cultural cycle (if I were to guess, this era of documentary will last about seven years – starting with 2019’s Fyre – so they’ll be normal again around 2026). The language of documentary has changed because the audience has changed: everyone who willingly appears in a documentary now knows they are one snappy soundbite away from being the Fyre Festival Bottled Water Guy or Carole Baskin From Tiger King. Essentially, documentaries used to have a whiff of homework about them, a certain librarial dorkiness, and now they are for everyone. This is good in one way (more people watching documentaries!) and very, very bad in another (more people watching documentaries). It will be impossible to make a true documentary in an era when millions of people watch them on Netflix, because everyone participating in them – everyone who appears on camera, smoothing down their shirt and asking if their mic pack works OK – knows they are this close to being 2023’s first meme. Nobody speaks normally when they are trying to become a gif.
To Gunther’s Millions (from Wednesday), then, a Netflix documentary (so highly glossy, a huge budget to recreate slo-mo and drone shots of a German shepherd eating a steak) that threatens to bust the edges of what a documentary actually is. The core story is: in 1992, German countess Karlotta Liebenstein left her entire estate and a fortune now worth $400m to a dog, Gunther III. A corporation of money managers, attorneys and PR people banded together to best spend the dog’s wealth and maintain the Gunther bloodline (we are now on Gunther the sixth) – and those are the people who are telling us this story about the world’s richest dog. It’s funny, isn’t it, they all say. Really rich dog. A dog? But it’s rich? That dog’s my boss! Ha, ha. Anyway, here’s how we made a dog buy Madonna’s mansion …
Some people will balk at this one because, well, we’re in a cost-of-living crisis and there’s a really rich dog. I got a text telling me I was in my overdraft halfway through the first episode, and when I looked up from my phone there was footage of a dog wearing a diamond chain on a private jet. That rankled. But mainly I find the problem with Gunther’s Millions – undoubtedly a strange, woozy, sexy weird story about how an Italian academic turned “having a dog” into a multi-multi-million-dollar porn-and-football empire – is that everyone is very aware they are on a documentary, and the documentary itself is very aware it’s going to get screenshotted to death. There is even an overt moment of this, in the first episode, when an Italian celebrity talking head breaks the fourth wall entirely: “I’ve asked you before, is he [Gunther Corporation CEO Maurizio Mian] paying you to make this documentary?” A documentary cannot look me in the face and ask me why it is a documentary! It has to just be a documentary!
If you have four hours to kill, the story itself is salacious enough – there is a list of 13 Gunther Commandments about how the rich dog should be represented, and the dog has a number of spokesmodels, as well as a strange semi-cultish pop band who lived with him in the late 90s – and it does allow you to idly ponder the question: “If I somehow fell into control of the estate of the world’s richest dog, how erratically would I spend the money?” But this is what documentaries are like now, I’m afraid – half a story told exclusively by the people enacting the story, plus some drone footage – and I don’t think it’s possible to learn anything from this. The moral of the story about the world’s richest dog is: there is no moral. Come back to me in 2026.