“A pyramid scheme is a non-sustainable business model that involves the exchange of money primarily for enrolling other people into the scheme, without any product or service being delivered. It has been known to come under many guises.”
CHILDREN OF INVENTION is about two young children who are left to fend for themselves when their mother is arrested for unwittingly taking part in an illegal pyramid scheme. It originally took place in the 1990s, the heyday of the pyramid scheme, but we updated it to the present day, because honestly, we didn’t have a lot of money for prop cars. The world of the film is full of desperate Americans trying to achieve some shortcut to the American dream. That’s the world I grew up in, and it’s a world I think about a lot.
This was in the 1990s. There was a word out on the street, and that word was “money.” Everywhere -- in diners, hotel lobbies, in homes and apartments, people listened to the latest opportunities breaking into the American market. Those opportunities went by many names: “multi-level-marketing,” “business-direct-marketing,” “network-marketing.” The people went by many names as well: “Diamonds” and “Sapphires,” “Executive Directors,” “Network Entrepreneurs.” In the heyday of the pyramid scheme, it felt like everyone was on the take. And nobody more than my family.
From the time I was eight till I turned fourteen, my sister and I followed my mother to countless seminars and conventions. We did Amway. When Amway fell apart, we did NuSkin. When NuSkin didn’t work out, we did Market America. And so on and so on. Most of the time we got out before we lost money. Sometimes we didn’t. Our basement was always filled with samples—skin cream, shampoos, miracle products. At one point we had dozens of satellite TV dishes stacked by the washer-dryer.
I sometimes wondered about the other people at those sales pitches, usually other immigrants and working class families. What were they hoping for? What did they think was going to happen for them? Perhaps the salesmen’s repeated promises of stability and invocations of the American dream were simply too attractive to resist. The people who had the least to spare were the very ones targeted by these companies.
For us, those days are now over. But I’ll always remember those smiling, hopeful people, and the relief and excitement that came over their faces as they signed over their money, like something better was just around the corner.
When I wrote the film, I was writing a personal story about the world I grew up in – a subculture of Americans trying to get-rich-quick in order to get themselves out of a financial hole. I didn't foresee the current financial crisis. But with the economy tanking now and foreclosures going through the roof, it seems like everyone's living through some version of what the Chengs go through in the film.
I hope this film can be a reminder that we’ve had bad times before, individually and as a country, but we’ve always made it out fine. America’s a melting pot. It’s made up of immigrants who are, by the nature of their journey here, survivors. It’s what we’re best at, and it’s what we’ll continue to do.
-- Tze Chun
Writer/Director, CHILDREN OF INVENTION