While everyone wants a happily ever after, the cynics among us know that in the real world, love can be toxic, messy, and manipulative. If you’re looking to skip the rom-coms this Valentine's Day, we've curated a list of true crime documentaries that look at what happens when passion and affection morph into deception, manipulation, and even obsession.
From elaborate dating scams to a soulmate-focused cult, these true stories show that while love can be messy, dangerous, and even sometimes tragic, it is always captivating.
'The Tinder Swindler'
In an era where online dating has become the norm, platforms like Tinder, Bumble, and Match offer the promise of love at the swipe of a finger. And while this technology has helped couples around the world form lasting connections, the Netflix documentary "The Tinder Swindler" shows how this technology can be exploited to help scammers hone in on their next target.
This compelling film follows the unbelievable true story of a singular con artist who tricked dozens of women on Tinder by posing as a diamond magnate. Under this guise, he lavished expensive gifts on his victims, before convincing them to invest millions of dollars in his sham business.
Not only does this documentary showcase some of the dangers of online dating, but it also delves into how psychological tactics like love bombing can make ordinary people susceptible to insidious scams like the one featured in the film.
Watch on Netflix
'Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe'
This Amazon Prime Video docuseries focuses on an online group called Twin Flames Universe, led by married couple Jeff and Shaleia Divine. The Divines purport to have special abilities that allow them to help people find their perfect "twin flame" partner, and recruit people to help spread their message of love, all while charging some pretty hefty fees for their services, and engaging in some psychologically disturbing and controlling tactics to keep those already among their ranks in check.
The series catches up with several current and former members of the group, who discuss how they were controlled through their affiliation with the Twin Flames Universe and coerced into leaving their families and bank accounts behind. The series also explored how members of this group were pressured and encouraged to maintain their twin flame relationship at all costs, even if it meant enduring abuse or engaging in stalking behavior.
This series is a tough watch, but this unflinching look at how the founders of this group were able to turn the spiritual quest for a life partner into a massive moneymaking scam that harmed hundreds of people (and who many believe to be a cult) make it a truly compelling watch.
Watch on Prime Video
'Bad Surgeon: Love Under the Knife'
This three-part Netflix docuseries follows Benita Alexander, an investigative journalist who finds herself entangled with world-famous surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, who rose to fame for developing an experimental medical technique and was said to be connected to wealthy and powerful individuals like former President Barack Obama and even the Pope. The relationship unfolds like a fairy tale, with Macchiarini lavishing Alexander with expensive gifts and taking her on luxurious whirlwind vacations around the world.
However, Alexander’s dream quickly turns into a nightmare as dark secrets about Macchiarini’s personal and professional life are slowly revealed. Not only does Alexander discover that Maccarini is already married with a family, but his career is largely based on falsified research, which led to many of his patients dying or suffering permanent disabilities due to his fraudulent activities.
While the subject matter is dark and disturbing, the combination of true crime elements, combined with the whirlwind romance makes this a trainwreck you won’t be able to turn away from.
Watch on Netflix
This 4-episode documentary series tells the true story of serial romance scammer Richard Scott Smith, who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from at least 10 different victims, driving many to bankruptcy and financial ruin. The series follows private investigator Carla Campbell, who collaborates with several of Smith’s victims to go on a cross-country hunt for Smith, who has been hopping from state to state to avoid justice. The series culminates with the victims confronting Smith with the truth of how his lies and manipulations destroyed their lives, and seeking closure and accountability.
The series sheds light on the cycle of manipulation and control used by romance scammers, but ends on a hopeful note, showing how victims can band together and fight back against these manipulators, finding hope and resolve within one another.
Watch on Paramount Plus with Showtime
The documentary film "Crazy Love" explores the tumultuous and complex relationship between New York City attorney Burt Pugach and his much younger girlfriend Linda Riss. The relationship begins in the 1950s and progresses quickly, with Pugargh showering Riss with expensive gifts, and taking her on lavish dates. However, when Riss discovers that Pugach is seeing her while still married, she breaks things off immediately, sending Pugach into a rage.
This culminates in him hiring thugs to throw acid in Riss's face, permanently disfiguring her. Pugach is quickly arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison for the crime. However, upon release, something strange happens: the pair rekindle their romance and actually marry just a few weeks later.
The film takes an unflinching look at the role power imbalances, deception, and controlling behavior played in this very toxic relationship. "Crazy Love" won several awards in 2007 when it was first released, including the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.
Watch on Tubi
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Amanda Kondolojy is an entertainment journalist based in Florida with over 15 years of experience covering film, TV, theme parks and more. When not in front of a screen you can find her reading something at the beach (usually by Neil Gaiman, Grady Hendrix or Brandon Sanderson) or dancing around the kitchen to her favorite showtunes.