Spoilers are ahead. A mysterious con artist posing as a Hollywood exec scams young aspiring filmmakers, photographers, and actors into thinking they've landed their big break, asking them to fly halfway across the world, only to cheat them out of thousands of dollars. It's Usual Suspects meets Catch Me If You Can, except this isn't the log line of a new movie. It's the true story of the Hollywood Con Queen.
The first episode of the new HBO Max docu-series Generation Hustle focuses on a skillful grifter who for years took advantage of Hollywood hopefuls by posing as high-powered women including Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and Rupert Murdoch's ex-wife Wendi Deng. They promised high paying jobs that were expertly tailored to their victims, but would ultimately leave these Hollywood gig workers high and dry. "I’m just lucky I didn’t get the call," Yon Motskin, the director behind the episode, told Refinery29. "Because the same thing would have happened to me."
Motskin, who is also the creator of Generation Hustle, considers "Hollywood Con Queen" to be "the craziest episode" in the series, which covers other high profile scammers like "the Soho grifter" Anna Delvey and WeWork's Adam Neumann. From 2015 to 2020, the Con Queen allegedly scammed hundreds of people worldwide, making off with almost $2 million. But it wasn't really about the money. It's a twisty tale about identity, gender, class, and twisted sexual dynamics. "This person was imitating men and women by using different accents and sometimes, on the same phone call, would change character," Motskin says. “If they weren’t so criminal I would say we should cast them in our next movie.”
However, it turns out, the wildest parts of this story didn't even make it into the episode.
When Motskin started filming the series on March 9, 2020 — the day before the pandemic shut the world down — the identity of the scammer dubbed the Con Queen of Hollywood by The Hollywood Reporter was still a mystery. Many believed she was an aggrieved ex-assistant of some studio bigwig with extensive knowledge of Hollywood's inner workings. But in November, as Motskin was editing the episode, Vanity Fair revealed that the Con Queen was Hargobind Punjabi Tahilramani, a U.K.-based Indonesian man who was known as a "foodfluencer" on Instagram.
The queen was a king all along, but that wasn't a plot twist for Motskin. "The truth is," he says over the phone. "We actually knew who this person was fairly early on in the process." While he preferred not to share the exact details of how he knew, he said that he had worked with Nicoletta Kotsianas, associate managing director of the investigation firm K2 Integrity, throughout the making of this episode (in which she also appears). K2's multi-year investigation would eventually lead to the Con Queen's arrest in 2020.
"I would have loved to be the one who broke this story," Motskin says now, but that was never his intention. He always saw the episode as being about the victims, not the con artist and believed the episode would still be "really satisfying and interesting without unmasking this person." And he doesn't. The episode ends without ever revealing the Con Queen's name, just a photo.
That final smiling image leaves viewers with questions that, as of now, can't be answered. But the director is open to trying to find them. "We didn’t have room to put in all of the unusual, strange, cool things about this person," he says. "We definitely have the material to do more" if Generation Hustle should get picked up for a second season.
Like viewers, by the end of the episode, Motskin didn't feel as if he understood Tahilramani any better. "I know they’re a very complicated person," he says. However, he does believe that if the Con Queen had put his "skills to positive good use, he could have been a pretty successful Hollywood actor, producer or both." Even his victims were in awe of his skills as a producer. In the episode, screenwriter Greg Mandarano admits that "the ideas, the creative input that was dribbled throughout the process, was brilliant."
That attention to detail and craft is why Motskin thinks Tahilramani was able to get away with it for so long. He knew his audience and he used their ambition against them. "He wasn't targeting accountants or undertakers whose careers are pretty straight forward," the director says. "He was targeting people who had to take a leap of faith, who had to close their eyes and jump off that cliff. Otherwise they'd never succeed."