This crime documentary series should really come with an asterisk. Because the “crime” in question is… well, not really much of a crime? And the documentary is… well, is technically a documentary, I guess, but certainly not in the traditional sense. Paul T. Goldman is more of a meta investigation into the mind of a psuedo-narcissistic weirdo named Paul Finkelman. Meta to the point where the snake swallows its own tail. Because Paul Finkelman is Paul T. Goldman, a character of his own creation to ostensibly protect his identity in a series of books and a screenplay on which this series is based where he unwinds the crimes committed by his ex-wife, whom he accuses of running a prostitution and child sex-trafficking ring. The same man who stars in this series as himself — or, rather, as his secret identity, Paul T. Goldman. The T. stands for… terrific?
Let’s see if I can explain this. There’s this super-nebbishy dude named Paul Finkelman. He’s a seemingly nice guy. His first marriage to a Russian, mail-order bride ends in divorce after she gets to the US and realizes she doesn’t want to be married to this nebbish. He finds a second wife named Audrey Munson (an alias). He agrees to some oddball arrangements in the marriage out of desperation, but is just psyched that this attractive woman will marry him and be a mother to his son from his first marriage. He quickly realizes some of the concessions he’s made may actually be Audrey’s way to bilk him out of money and basically live her life outside of him. His paranoia grows as he discovers phone bills with mysterious numbers, has her followed by a private detective and sees a psychic who fuels his paranoid delusions that she’s an evil person. Somehow he goes from discovering this dubious behavior to her running a prostitution ring and escalates it to child sex-trafficking. It’s unhinged, but this is what this dude does.
All of this is captured in a self-published book and screenplay that he puts out there, claiming that it’s “all true!” A claim he seems to dial back over and over again over the span of the series. Anyhow, this book finds its way to Jason Woliner, director of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and that Nathan For You show. Woliner took this on almost a decade ago, filming Finkelman/Goldman’s story based on his screenplay based on his book (and many subsequent sequels and spin-offs) for the duration. Shopping it to networks and streamers, getting deals, losing deals and finally landing something different at Peacock than what Finkelman expected ten years ago. I imagine — as if you can’t tell from this description — that most possible landing spots (I think at one time Hulu was on board) were a little confused by this concept. And the lack of “star power,” as this oddball loser, Paul Finkelman, actually stars in his own documentary. Which is really not a crime documentary, but a documentary about a dude who really thinks he can star in what amounts to a recreation of a novel that with each pass seems less and less non-fiction and more and more the delusion of an easily manipulated rube who let his imagination run wild.
Look, you have to like this type of thing to watch Paul T. Goldman. By this type of thing, I mean this kind of meta comedic cringe thing that is a mashup of a Borat, The Daily Show and something like American Crime Story. Finkelman thinks he’s in one thing. Woliner knows he’s in something else. We see the sausage being made, and we’re in on the joke. Though at times it’s unclear whether Woliner is play acting as the exhausted director, or is actually at the end of his rope with his star. As they bring in recognizable actors to play these bizarre characters (whom Finkelman insists are “real,” be we’re pretty sure are not) and see confessional type interviews from as they try to be as nice as possible about the project’s intentions. And the series’ star. It’s a lot to ask of them, but they’re pros about it. Even when they have to have super-awkward conversations with him between scenes.
The thing is, our feelings about Paul kind of vary from episode to episode. In the foreground is the pathetic nature of this whole undertaking. A guy who was burned by a woman, and rather than moving on spins it into an escalating obsession (including him harassing the FBI about her) that lasts for more than a decade. A dude who is seemingly not a bad guy — and is actually a relatively smart guy — but suffers from some sort of malady that was clearly born in his early childhood where he craves love and attention from those who are least willing to give it. A guy who at one time had a decent job, but is reduced to cold-calling to sell car insurance policies on commission for The General. He’s a sucker, pure and simple. And while his hubris in even thinking that this project is worthwhile is on display, it seems that everyone — the psychic who is clearly bilking him for tons of dough, and even Woliner himself, who is kind of playing him for a fool — is continually taking advantage of his naïveté and general stupidity about human nature. It all ultimately feels kind of icky. Which may or may not be the point. I mean, Finkelman gets what he wants: a Hollywood story exposing his wife’s duplicitous nature (albeit not at all to the level he wishes) and a chance to live as the hero, Paul T. Goldman. But what he thinks is a hero’s journey is really just an exploration of the mind of a dude who is detached from reality.