Fifty years ago, the Woodstock festival set the seal on a certain image of the counterculture, and while enough time has now passed for us not to get too misty-eyed about what that event represented (and how it was put on), it's hard not to watch Michael Wadleigh's 1970 documentary without being moved on some level by the sight of kids pulling something epochal together in the face of some lousy weather and attitudes. Fast-forward just shy of a half-century to the brave new world of 2017, where the rich jocks behind Fyre - the mobile phone app that promised consumers better access when booking bands - had the bright idea of throwing together what was meant to be a next-level music festival on a sunkissed island in the Bahamas previously owned by druglord Pablo Escobar. Anyone who was logged into Twitter that fateful April weekend will know what happened next. In what could be cited as a textbook example of con-job late capitalism in action - if the digital economy hadn't made textbooks seem so last century - partygoers were promised a seductive cocktail of glamour, money and sex, what celebrity frontman Ja Rule (or, as you and I know him, Featurin' Ja Rule) billed as "one of the most important cultural events in history". The reality, of course, would be something else: several planeloads of scared kids on an island, without access to food, water, music, toilets or even basic lighting.
Fyre, Chris Smith's documentary/postmortem, has the advantage of access to most of the company's key players and the hours and hours of videotape these moneyed narcissists shot in the hope of documenting what they thought would be their making. This latter footage carries us into a detached reality somewhere between the ahead-of-its-time Brooker/Morris satire Nathan Barley and Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho: a place where there are human men called Mdavid and PR firms called Fuckjerry, where filming an advert with pigs and willing supermodels counts as a normal Thursday, and where someone floats the none-too-smart notion of launching a jet-black metallic credit card for millennials, like those guys have credit, or wallets to carry such geegaws in. What follows is a chronicle of high-flying idiocy, populated by individuals - like Rule and Fyre founder Billy McFarland - possessed of that increasingly prevalent combination of naked ambition and abject dimwittedness.
Told not to mention Escobar's name in their advance publicity, the Fyre crew duly blabbermouthed it to their followers, so requiring a second location to be found at a month's notice; when paying punters began asking questions, McFarland determined to bluff the crisis out and invest more money in non-essential items, choosing to protect the brand over sweating the small stuff like accommodation and flights. There is not a single point in the entire movie where you believe the Fyre Festival could ever have been a success. In the Woodstock model, when the storm blew in and the food ran out, everybody stepped up; that's what Wadleigh showed us between the headline acts. In our dog-eat-dog 21st century, everyone was in and at Fyre for the glory - and thus quick and damnably keen to deny personal liability when things went south. There are several points in the movie where you're amazed nobody died.
Smith knows that this story is so emblematic of the zeitgeist that he doesn't have to jazz it up much. As a company, Fyre had its own bright, shiny aesthetic, ported across here to enable an effective visual contrast with the dark clouds of reality. What the filmmaker has done is stitch everything together with zippiness enough to hold the attention of casual phoneswipers; it borrows both its editing strategy and several soundtrack cues from David Fincher's increasingly totemic-seeming The Social Network. I sat down expecting to guffaw at the hubris involved; in fact, from a very early point, the film is angering, but it's an instructive anger, much as Alex Gibney's Enron doc left us with. At one point, a member of McFarland's entourage is caught on tape declaring "We're selling a pipe dream to the average loser", a line destined to stick firmly in the craw of right-minded viewers; and yet, once you get past the contempt in that comment (and any heat it might fire in your own blood), you realise this has been the mission statement of almost every major company to have turned a profit these past hundred years - it's just a little more crudely expressed nowadays, that's all.
In the second half, as the company rips itself apart and McFarland weasels away as best he can, Fyre offers illustration after illustration of the extreme positions money can push us towards: you see it in the weirdly blithe testimony of the senior staffer who confesses he was willing to fellate a customs official to ensure the show went on as planned, or the quietly jolting coda in which the Bahamian foreman who went unpaid for his onsite labours takes a call from McFarland on camera and offers to give a more favourable account of his experiences. By then, we are a long way removed from the glossy promises of facetime with Emily R. and Bella H., but then these are the lies that are allowed to proliferate on social media - by tech firms scarcely more diligent than Fyre were - and which allow cheats and conmen to gain the hold over us that they have. Fifty years on from the peace, love and unity of Woodstock, it's clear the world has ended up in the hands of utter idiots and stone-cold sociopaths. Watching this particular shambles replay itself in the course of Smith's film, a pressing question may begin to form in your head: when did basic competency become such a luxury?
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened is now streaming on Netflix.