Review: ‘How to Make Money Selling Drugs’ Obscures the Issues With a Gimmicky Structure

By  · Published on June 26th, 2013

For a documentary to get noticed these days, it helps to have a fresh angle. But being creative with the form doesn’t necessarily result in an effective film, especially when it’s tackling a serious issue. Stunts occasionally work (see Super Size Me), as do innovative narrative devices (see 1965 Oscar-winner The War Game), but most docs with a gimmick unfortunately seem to hold that stylistic choice in front of the subject at hand. There’s no denying that How to Make Money Selling Drugs is a clever work of nonfiction, but we’re left thinking about the structure more than the film’s point.

The real problem, however, might be that the film’s point is not even too clear anyway. Written, directed and heavily narrated by Matthew Cooke, the doc takes the form of, as the title suggests, an actual How-To guide to making money selling drugs. For a while it seems like an amusing piece of ironic satire, as former dealers including rapper 50 Cent and legendary trafficker “Freeway” Rick Ross favorably talk of making big money at very young ages. Then Cooke’s focus veers towards the problems of the Drug War and the prison industrial system and NYC’s Rockefeller laws, and it’s apparent that he may in fact be endorsing the occupation.

I was quickly reminded of my first job when I was 16. No, it wasn’t selling drugs. It was working part time at one of the major office supply stores. On my first day I had to watch the usual training videos, and one of them was very memorable, as it basically illustrated all the ways that a person could steal from this store, whether as a customer, an employee or a straight robber. This loss prevention tape was intended to show us what to look out for, and yet for some it must have been a great, negative inspiration. That’s what How to Make Money Selling Drugs is like (if it even means to discourage the job of dealing in the first place); in spite of all the drug trade workers interviewed for the film no longer being in the game, they still make their old job seem pretty appealing.

In addition to the guidebook structure, the doc is also formatted to mimic a video game. Each section, marked by flashy motion graphics, is both like a chapter and a level. Tips flash on the screen. So do special bonuses and warnings, as we’re led through the pyramid like we’re advancing up and up until we get to the big boss, which is the leader of a drug cartel. Yet the viewer isn’t supposed to identify as a narcotics officer or anyone else looking to defeat these level bosses. The goal of the game is to achieve the status of each figure. Some of it is definitely more tongue in cheek than the rest. Obviously none of us, no matter how much we’re taught and no matter how easy it looks on Breaking Bad, is going to get our own massive drug operation.

Speaking of TV dramas, they’ve been far more clever and witty about America’s drug culture in recent years than you’re going to find here. Breaking Bad and Weeds are together already the satire on the anybody can do it concept while The Wire went through every nook and cranny of the truly absurd and hypocritical world of drugs in this country, and that show even went for its own creative hypothetical in its “Hamsterdam” season. How to Make Money Selling Drugs features The Wire creator David Simon on screen relaying some of what he’s seen and knows about the drug war. But if you’ve watched his work, this appearance provides nothing he hasn’t already communicated better through fictional drama. Cooke’s use of certain clips from the show as visual aid even proves this.

It’s not a worthless documentary, however. There’s room for all kinds, especially when it comes to the issue of drugs. Last year Eugene Jarecki gave us a look at many of the very same problems in The House I Live In, and that documentary is far more effective because it takes the issues seriously, sincerely and personally. That’s one way to do it. Cooke tried it another, and while he’s less likely to influence his (expectantly younger) audience of anything, he does provide some fascinating characters and stories. Never mind the names like 50 Cent, Susan Sarandon, Woody Harrelson and Eminem, who headlines a chapter on addiction. There’s the ex-dealer named Brian O’Dea, whose story is like a true episode of Miami Vice. There’s the very colorful, often profane and always brilliantly spoken lawyer, Eric Sterling, as vivid an expert talking head as you could ever want.

Most compelling is Barry Cooper, a former narc who was like a superhero on the force who now turns his experience and knowledge in the favor of people facing drug charges. He exposes corrupt cops and evidence planting and serves as an expert witness in drug trials, and he formerly had a hit video series called “Never Get Busted,” which sounds like a literal predecessor or appendix to this documentary (he leads a chapter of the film that is about not getting busted). His is an astonishing story deserving of his own movie, nonfiction or dramatic, especially now that since appearing in this film he’s become a fugitive (he believes the police are out to get him) and has fled to South America.

If only Cooke simply let these people and their fellow interviewees just tell their stories and still chronicled the drug war from the perspectives of these players, it would be a pretty decent documentary. The hip style he goes for overpowers and does a disservice to the cause, and the contrived method, which doesn’t always fit every side issue he wants to bring in, is worse, coming off as borderline self-mockery. How to Make Money Selling Drugs may give you some help in achieving what it’s title says it will, but it’s really even more a lesson of how to not make a film about an important subject.

The Upside: Fascinating stories of drug dealers and others involved in the culture; Eric Sterling is one of the most enjoyable lawyers you’ll ever meet

The Downside: Style and structural conceit are too dominant, obscuring the point and the important issues; most of the famous talking heads are briefly used and unnecessary, clearly kept in just for their stardom; might actually encourage kids to make money selling drugs

On the Side: One of the producers of How to Make Money Selling Drugs is actor/filmmaker Adrian Grenier; Cooke previously produced, shot and edited Grenier’s own documentary feature, Teenage Paparazzo. Also from that film’s team is the other producer of How to Make Money Selling Drugs, Bert Marcus.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.