A dog with 400 million dollars! Human Education Experiments! Madonna’s house!
Netflix must hope that its latest docuseries “Gunther’s Millions” draws in legions of eye-catching thrill-seekers like “Tiger King” in 2020.
But even though this narrow four-act show shares some of the hit show’s animal DNA, it turns out to be a rather poignant study of manic depression and could inspire imaginary/delusional lengths looking for a cure. Well, that and greed.
Director Aurelien Leturgie executive-interviews Emilie Dumay (“The Amazing Race”), and they become more interested in psychology than psychosis as the story unfolds in front of their unforgiving cameras and sensitive but probing questions. The filmmakers claim to have discovered the depths beneath the surface of the absurd story at the same time as the audience. What appears on screen tends to support that; Decades of local television and tabloid reporting populate the series, but that coverage has been sketchy. Although it can sound like a cheap documentary trick of withholding information to preserve melodrama, what Liturgy and Dumai are doing here gets to some kind of truth.
The Gunthers, as stated in the general account, are a breed of purebred German Shepherds to whom the grieving Countess Carlotta Liebenstein inherited her great fortune. Maurizio Meian’s family of wealthy Italian pharmaceutical manufacturers was close to Liebenstein and her suicidal son, also named Gunther. Maurizio, who was Gunter’s human age and tipped off his best friend, ended up in charge of the dog Gunter’s money and was basically allowed to spend it however he wanted, as long as it was somehow connected to the dog’s welfare.
Naturally, the dogs needed yachts, mansions in Miami (one of which was previously owned by Madonna) and Tuscany, and a personal chef to cook steaks. Even more unnaturally, Mian thought he should also hire a variety of attractive young men to live with Gunter and hopefully produce their own strain of ultra-happy specimens.
One Miami casting agent who helped fill the villas with beautiful bodies realized after a while: “This is too much racing for me.”
But such sinister potential has been squandered, by the sweet cynicism, of human nature (who knew super-sex could take a backseat when true friendships developed?). The more disturbing parts of the story, involving puppy mill abuse and a Byzantine tax fraud scheme, could have been better examined in the series. But then, who wants to dwell on things like that when you can overlook porn star Cicciolina, when Mian put her in charge of the football team in Pisa that he bought for Gunther?
A sad, shaggy sack who finds it hard to smile, Mian might not be everyone’s idea of a die-hard research expert. Therein lies the magic and flesh of the true story in “Gunther’s Millions.” Mian has gone to extraordinary lengths to cure something that has gnawed at him his entire life—and, despite his extravagant, ridiculous, moralizing efforts, he probably always did. He’s a wonderfully multifaceted character: stern, obtuse, manipulative, melancholy, scientific but not really. He’s like Hugh Hefner with an Italian soul, and maybe a lot is going on inside.
You might want to watch “Gunther’s Millions” a second time to discover the overlooked clues in the interviews with Mian and his entourage of hiding from colleagues and lovers. It’s a safe bet that all of the slow-motion footage of patrons strolling around will look like little more than fake inserts and jerks on repeat viewing, too. Likewise hazy re-enactments may shift from lame dramatizations to representations that reveal the mental mysteries at play.
None of this makes “Gunther’s Millions” particularly popular. The series dips into the conventions of the dystopian genre, lecturing us on how money doesn’t buy happiness while drooling while people try to do it. But in the end, Mian reaches the point of, if not redemption, the promise of peace.
He’ll probably have to pay big bucks for it, but for this kind of thing, it feels like a gift.
Gunther’s Millions: Documentary series. Starring Maurizio Mian and Gunther VI. Directed by Aurelien Liturgy. (TV-MA. Four 45-minute episodes) in English and Italian with English subtitles. Available to stream starting Wednesday, February 1, on Netflix.