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Film Review: ‘Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web’

A notorious internet pirate pleads his case in veteran New Zealand documentarian Annie Goldson’s latest.

Kim Dotcom, Mona Dotcom, Andrew Bridges, Gabriella Coleman, Steve Fabrizio, Cyrus Farivar, David Fisher, Sean Gallagher, Glenn Greenwald, Lawrence Lessig, Robert Levine, Mike Masnick, Moby, Ira P. Rothken, Greg Sandoval, Smudo, Aram Sinnreich, Jonathan Taplin, Jimmy Wales, Jonathan Zittrain.

Though his offscreen legal woes are unlikely to end anytime soon, “bad boy” internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom gets a fair trial from Annie Goldson’s extensive if by no means exhaustive scrutiny. Sprawling across decades lived, millions spent and controversies invited by this high-living hacker, content pirate, attempted politician and celebrity fame chaser, “Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web” finds him a shameless opportunist — but also the victim of overzealous, invasive, seemingly illegal pestering by authorities from New Zealand police to the White House.

He’s an undeniably colorful figure who compels interest, along with the myriad issues of digital age ownership, privacy and ethics raised here. Whether he’s also a sympathetic figure may depend on your feelings about relentlessly self-promoting types willing and able to make hundreds of millions facilitating the theft of other people’s property — i.e., popular movies and music — to realize their delusions of personal grandeur. By the time Dotcom has reinvented himself (admittedly with just partial success) as a martyred free-speech advocate, some engrossed but appalled viewers may be reaching for their upchuck bags.

Born Kim Schmitz in 1974 in Germany, the towering and heavy-set middle school dropout began accruing notoriety while a teenager, with claims of hacking into the systems of government agencies and corporations worldwide. At 20 he was prosecuted on charges including trafficking in stolen phone cards, though a lenient judge gave him a two-year suspended sentence — assuming this was a bright lad’s youthful folly when in fact Schmitz was only getting started.

These deeds ironically made him a hot number as a computer security consultant among exactly the sorts of agencies whose security walls he’d trespassed. Rather than embrace the legit side, however, he got embroiled in insider trading and other get-rich-quick schemes, with more criminal investigations ensuing. It seemed a good time to relocate to the Far East, where Hong Kong’s “Wild West” world of high finance was much more to his liking than regulatory-heavy Europe. He also changed his name legally to “Kim Dotcom” and met beauteous Filipina spouse Mona, with whom he had several children. They moved to a spectacular estate outside Auckland — boasting the most ginormous home in all New Zealand — in 2009.

A flashy, exhibitionist lifestyle of luxury cars, yachts, parties and celebrity-brah selfies was paid for by questionable means, none more successful or dubious than Megaupload, a file-storing and -sharing service he founded in 2005. Though it allowed for various kinds of content, the thing that clearly drove traffic — and profits — was its attracting unauthorized uploads of commercial entertainment products, from this week’s big-screen Hollywood blockbuster to the current chart-topping pop album. Needless to say, movie studios and record labels were not at all happy about this purloining of their intellectual properties.

It is suspected those industries put pressure on the Obama administration, which in turn pressured N.Z. authorities, who in January 2012 staged a preposterously massive armed raid of Dotcom’s home, complete with two helicopters. It is unquestionable that many aspects of this operation were themselves illegal, and it cast officials both Kiwi and Yankee in a disturbing light of spying collusion. For a time, this overstepping of bounds rendered Dotcom a folk hero of sorts on his adopted home ground, inspiring him to start an “Internet Party” to combat supposed entrenched corruption in local and national politics.

Empathetic as Goldson is to a point, “Caught in the Web” can’t disguise that for all Dotcom’s righteous indignation, his political causes invariably shore up his own extra large economic (and legal) interests. He strikes poses defending artists against corporate servitude, yet Megaupload made him wealthy exploiting their labors with no royalty or other recompense whatsoever. (His announced good intentions on moving from exploitation to cooperation on that front do not appear to have ever developed past PR.) He is a braggart and a publicity hound who, because the powers of entrenched commerce and government proved bigger than him (at least in the sporadic long run), fancies himself Christ-on-the-bloody-cross. At present his principal contribution to society appears to be as a competitive video-game player.

A giant data dump of diverse archival and interview materials shaped into an admirably cogent if cluttered two-hour whole, “Caught” provides a fascinating albeit extreme illustration of the intersection between fame, greed, copyright and technology in the internet age. Dotcom’s big defense for many of his actions is simply that the world is too slow to change, so he can’t be blamed for taking advantage of those insufficiently on the cutting edge.

But he can be blamed. Not everyone who detects a vulnerability feels the need to bleed it for all it’s worth, then cry abuse over the consequences.

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Film Review: ‘Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web’

Reviewed at Hot Docs (Democrazy), May 2, 2017. (Also in SXSW.) Running time: 112 MIN.

Production: (Docu — New Zealand) A Decoding Pictures presentation in association with New Zealand Film Commission and Monsoon Pictures Int’l. (International sales: XYZ Films, Los Angeles.) Producer: Alexander Behse.

Crew: Director: Annie Goldson. Camera (color, HD): Dominic Fryer, Adam Ruszkowski, Simon Raby, Marcus Winterbauer, Laela Kilbourn.

With: Kim Dotcom, Mona Dotcom, Andrew Bridges, Gabriella Coleman, Steve Fabrizio, Cyrus Farivar, David Fisher, Sean Gallagher, Glenn Greenwald, Lawrence Lessig, Robert Levine, Mike Masnick, Moby, Ira P. Rothken, Greg Sandoval, Smudo, Aram Sinnreich, Jonathan Taplin, Jimmy Wales, Jonathan Zittrain.

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