Art world controversy and criminality has become a documentary subgenre of late, but what sets "Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery" apart is how breezily compassionate it is toward a master deceiver and how damning its tone is toward a greedy art world that allowed him to flourish.
For nearly 40 years, German painter Wolfgang Beltracchi created "lost" works by famous artists with notable gaps in their histories — Leger, Ernst, Campendonk — and flooded the market with 300 or so of them until he and his wife, Helene, who introduced the imitated originals to dealers, were caught and convicted.
For director Arne Birkenstock's cameras, the genial, open Beltracchi — allowed day release from prison to work in his studio — shows how he created his forgeries, which involve technique, historical knowledge, hubris (he often believed he was improving on masters' work) and storytelling chicanery. He and his wife even faked an ancient photograph to help sell their yarn of a wealthy collector in the family.
The details are mesmerizing as is the rule-breaking psychology behind it. But however you view his particular crimes, Beltracchi's assessment of a blindly commerce-driven art world that rewards experts, buyers and vendors over anything else comes from experience.
"Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery."
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.