There are scenes from On Becoming a God in Central Florida that seem so over-the-top, you'll assume this must be a made-up fantasy. Which, technically speaking, the new Showtime series starring Kirsten Dunst is fiction. But on the other hand, there is so much that's true inspiring the story in On Becoming a God In Central Florida, it might as well be based on a real story.
Having lived in central Florida in 1992, when the show takes place, I can tell you those styles, that decor, and yes, even those deadly gators, are quite historically accurate. But is the Founders American Merchandise (FAM) multi-level marketing company at the story's center a real company? Not exactly, though it's certainly based on a number of similar MLMs, and nothing we've seen from On Becoming God in Central Florida makes FAM seem any crazier or shadier than the nonfiction versions.
If you've listened to the excellent, super-addictive podcast The Dream, you already know this. If any of your friends or family are constantly trying to get you to buy makeup or vitamins from them, you know a good bit of it too.
The Charismatic Leader, Obie Garbeau II
From the very start of On Becoming a God, we see Travis Stubbs (Alexander Skårsgard) listening to cassette tapes narrated by Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine). At first they seem like super encouraging lessons about achieving your dreams and living up to your potential. Upon closer inspection, they're all about how rich Garbeau is and how all you need to obtain the multiple homes and helicopters he has is to believe in yourself... and also become part of his Garbeau System.
Garbeau's tapes sound an awful lot like the philosophies William Penn Patrick promoted in his popular 1967 book Happiness and Success Through Principle. You can hear excerpts of it here and in The Dream.
"Those who condemn wealth are those who have none and see no chance of getting it," was one of Patrick's most famous quotes. Lovely.
Patrick founded the cosmetics company Holiday Magic and the self-help company Leadership Dynamics, both of which the Federal Trade Commission found guilty of using deceptive trade practices in 1973. That same year, he died while piloting one of his own planes.
While Patrick wasn't the first MLM leader. That dubious honor goes to David H. McConnell, the door-to-door salesman who founded a perfume-selling business in 1886 that later became Avon. But there's also a man more notorious than Patrick and whose company still sells even more than Avon, Richard DeVos, cofounder of Amway. He and cofounder Jay Van Andel sold people on the idea that wealth is something everyone can have if they try hard enough. Amway and many other MLMs are still big on having their salespeople learn their entrepreneurial doctrines via audiobooks, seminars, and streaming videos.
The Pyramid, Er, MLM Model
So, to this day, companies designated as MLMs contend that they are not pyramid schemes, because those are illegal. But you can see how On Becoming a God's FAM has multiple levels of salespeople, with higher ups like Carole Wilkes (Julie Benz) who oversee a number of salespeople below them like Cody Boner (Theodore Pellerin) who oversee a few other salespeople like Travis, who oversees a few of his own. It's mostly the people at the very bottom who are responsible for selling products. FAM's offerings look a lot like a few existing MLMs, which we'll refrain from naming because of this next bit.
The thing that makes an MLM a pyramid scheme? The fact that you really can't make much money simply by selling the products. The people at the bottom wind up spending their own money, often going into debt, not just to buy the products they're selling. They also put up cash for for sales tools, those aforementioned tapes, and especially for seminars they attend. The only way they can actually make money is by recruiting new salespeople on their "downline" and getting profits from those sales.
While many MLMs tell people that selling their products will give them a path toward financial independence and eventual wealth, according to the Washington Post, the average salesperson earned only $115 a month, as of 2018. But like Travis Stubbs and his wife Krystal (Dunst), some of those targeted by MLMs don't have a lot of other opportunities. Many are also mothers who need a flexible schedule so they can care for their kids. Many are also not trained businesspeople, so when their sales tactics fail to earn them much money, they can easily believe the company line that it's their fault for not trying hard enough, not the system's.
Now, as for what a gritty, determined woman like Krystal can do to dig herself out of the disaster FAM has made of her life, we'll have to watch the show to find out. Maybe see if your leggings-and-lipstick-shilling friends want to watch along, too.