If there hadn’t been a body count, Chris and Jeff George’s escapades might have made for a divinely trashy TLC reality show. The brothers had gargantuan appetites, a habit of breaking the law without consequences, a flair for exaggeration, and a knack for spending money as fast as it came in on all the things that would keep a certain kind of viewer coming back: strip club visits, firearms, McMansions, and jacked-up trucks. But as Darren Foster’s new documentary ‘American Pain’ (premiering at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival) shows in both electrifying and sickening terms, what the Georges did to get all that bling was less larger-than-life roguishness and more cartel boss.
The Georges were the kind of brothers who finished each other’s sentences and took an “us against the world” mentality. Raised by a wealthy Florida construction magnate who appeared to have given them an extremely long leash, they had a lengthy record of legal scrapes (fighting, drinking, theft, starting a brush fire) even before Chris received a felony conviction for illegally distributing steroids. Eager to make money after the housing crash, the brothers tried the steroid angle again, this time through the lightly regulated telemedicine loophole. Pretty soon, however, they discovered there was more to be made running a “pain clinic.” With Florida’s laughably lax regulations, that meant they could essentially open up a storefront and, with the help of a few compliant doctors, start “prescribing” powerful painkillers by the bushel to anybody who came in. Starting in early 2008, that is exactly what they did.
Even grading on the admittedly steep Florida curve for doing things casually, the businesses run by the Georges appeared to be clinics in name only. In the copious surveillance footage incorporated by Foster (‘Science Fair’), the clinics more closely resemble one interviewee’s description as being like “the DMV.” Dozens or hundreds of people jammed into the bare-bones strip mall locations, jittery and anxious to get their appointments and their pills. The brothers’ buddy and enforcer, Derik Nolan (seen here verbally brow-beating the patients with the same loud contempt that a street corner dealer would use with their clientele), excitedly remembers the clinics’ working atmosphere as fully bro-tastic: tequila shots, ninja throwing stars, female workers hired for their looks, “everything you wished you could do as a teenager.” Only instead of hanging out at a clubhouse, they were dealing narcotics in a clinic where at least one doctor packed a handgun.
Because of the overflow crowding, not to mention the addicts getting high in the parking lot or dying in accidents after driving away and nodding off, the clinics kept getting the wrong kind of attention. At first, it was neighboring businesses complaining, after which the Georges would simply open up in a new location. In a relatively short amount of time, the brothers were raking in profits and delighting pharmaceutical salespeople with how many pills were going out the door (the pills were like Doritos, one rep emails with a fairly frightening level of delight, “keep eating. We’ll make more”).
But eventually, given their extremely blasé attitude toward hiding criminality and insistence on talking through their crimes on the phone (providing not just law enforcement but Foster with a treasure trove of in-the-moment material), the FBI and DEA took notice. The law enforcement officials included in the film register bafflement at the brazenness of the George brothers’ drug markets. But they shouldn’t have been. Given the nearly nonexistent oversight in Florida and legal opiates already flooding the country, the surprise should have been that nobody had thought before to scale an in-plain-sight operation like the Georges.
Foster tackles this material in the high-velocity fashion common to many stranger-than-fiction documentaries about people gleefully living outside the law. There is a lot for him to work with, one vivid and outlandish anecdote spilling into another. Although the Georges do not appear much in the film, their steroid-pumped weight-lifter vibe (all those Affliction T-shirts and Chris’s vaguely Stephen Baldwin intensity), demand for instant gratification, and cold-blooded amorality comes through loud and clear. Maybe there is not much to find with the brothers besides the surface bravado portrayed here. But taking that for granted leaves the film ill-equipped to manage a late revelation about a truly sinister side to Chris, which is then somewhat shruggingly ignored.
However, ‘American Pain’ is not ultimately a portrait of criminals. If it had been, Foster could not have produced such a bruising and vital piece of film journalism. The gap left in the story by the relative thinness of the Georges’ characterization is filled by Fosters’ inclusion of some of the dealers who used the clinics as their “never-ending pill bottle.” Interviewees from Kentucky describe driving hours and hours south with van loads of “patients” whom they could use to buy pills as though shopping at a warehouse store. Crucially, Foster uses the stories of the Kentucky dealers, what happened to them and their community after the brothers’ downfall, to illustrate not just the extent of the damage but to contrast it with the Georges’ seemingly charmed life.
In this American story, the pain is far from evenly distributed. [A-]