This Teen Ran an International Drug Ring From His Childhood Bedroom
The new Netflix documentary “Shiny_Flakes: The Teenage Drug Lord,” tells the real-life story of a kid who ran a drug empire from his bedroom under the handle “Shiny_Flakes.”
You can find anything on the internet, as proven by Shiny_Flakes: The Teenage Drug Lord, the story of Maximilian Schmidt, who as a kid in Leipzig created an online drug empire from his bedroom via a homemade web site—thus becoming the inspiration for Netflix’s fictional series How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast).
Eva Müller’s Netflix documentary (available now) revisits Schmidt’s headline-making odyssey via the man himself, who’s free after serving four-plus years in juvenile detention for his illicit operation. Schmidt sits down for extended interviews, and participates in dramatic recreations of his scheme, which was orchestrated under the alias Shiny_Flakes from a small room in his mother and her partner’s flat (supposedly, these adults didn’t know what was going on right under their noses). In those conversations, Schmidt comes across as a smug guy who stumbled into becoming a kingpin and didn’t care that he was breaking the law, and as detectives and psychologists persuasively surmise, he was driven less by the Bitcoin he was earning—which he didn’t really spend—than by the ego-boost he received from becoming a star on the shadier corners of the internet.
Responding to critics’ claims that anyone could have pulled off such a ruse, Schmidt nonchalantly states, “You either do it or you don’t.” In his case, he did, this despite having no prior experience with, or connections in, the world of illegal narcotics. Schmidt says he launched his endeavor after learning about a website that sold drugs like everyday goods, and realizing that he could create something better—a challenge he undertook until, one day, he was knee-deep in peddling cocaine, MDMA and prescription pills to customers both in his native Germany and around Europe and the rest of the globe. Once he had a supplier and got the word out online about his marketplace, the rest mostly took care of itself, with drugs arriving via the mail and then—once he’d parceled them out into sellable quantities—departing via the same postal route.
Schmidt’s brazenness is without question the most astonishing aspect of his tale. Not only was he peddling drugs out in the (online) open; he was doing so with a website that boasted a readily available FAQ. It was like he was daring authorities to shut him down. For a time, that provocation garnered little active response, because Schmidt was smart about covering his digital tracks and authorities had little means of figuring out how to identify him. In that regard, Shiny_Flakes: The Teenage Drug Lord is a portrait of the advantages that cybercriminals have over local law enforcement IT departments—at least, to some extent. Like most crooks, Schmidt wasn’t nearly as shrewd as he believed, especially since his system required that he personally collect and mail drugs from public post-office boxes that were visible to anyone on the street.
The primary hook of Shiny_Flakes: The Teenage Drug Lord is the fact that the unassuming Schmidt did all this with little more than a computer, some technological know-how, and an assortment of scales and packaging equipment. To be fair, what he pulled off was an impressive underworld feat. Yet there’s nothing particularly astounding about either the origins or mechanics of his business; he simply figured that he could indefinitely conceal his online movements from authorities, only to learn that nothing like this lasts forever, because mishaps are an inevitable part of such games. When he was caught, he was unremorseful, and that too seems somewhat par for the course, as his former restaurant employers (he worked for a time as a waiter) confirm that he was super-confident, always in a rush, and unconcerned about what others thought.
Consequently, Schmidt’s rise and fall is the sort of saga that would make for fantastic cocktail-party fodder, but comes across as mundane by streaming-service true-crime standards. Even his eventual detection and capture were pretty routine; Müller’s wealth of police surveillance photos of Schmidt retrieving his goods from couriers and mail boxes are as ho-hum as just about everything else here. To counter that unavoidable impression, the director gussies up her action with intensifying electronic music, rapid-fire montages and screens upon screens upon screens, her frame often inundated by scores of Twitter comments and website reviews (surprise: Schmidt’s buyers loved his products and customer service!). It all feels like overcompensation, although at least it keeps the pace fleet.
Worse than those flashy gimmicks are the dramatic recreations that Müller stages in a reconstructed version of Schmidt’s bedroom that’s located in a giant warehouse. While those passages provide a clear view of what Schmidt was up to, the fact remains that he wasn’t up to anything especially dramatic, and watching him retrace his steps—using an Xbox as a shiny surface to enhance photos of his merchandise, and instant messaging with his cohorts—is as tame as the rest of the proceedings. Moreover, these sequences allow Schmidt to be the very thing he most coveted—the notorious center of attention—which renders the film celebratory, this despite Müller’s occasionally pointed questions and the condemnations doled out by other speakers.
In the end, Schmidt only got away with selling drugs in this manner from late December 2013 until February 2015—a deflatingly brief run, all things considered. In its final few minutes, Shiny_Flakes: The Teenage Drug Lord suggests that Schmidt may be trafficking narcotics once again, and that law enforcement is intensely aware of his activities. Director Müller elicits some minor disgust from Schmidt’s cagey comments that he doesn’t know what happened to the unrecovered money he netted as Shiny_Flakes (unbelievable), and that he currently works at a car park doing “car stuff” (even less believable). That conclusion, however, implies that this story may not be over, which therefore makes this documentary seem potentially premature.