Gunther VI, the latest in a long line of German Shepherds, is the richest animal in the world, valued at somewhere between $400-$500 million. Somehow, though, that’s the least wild facet of Gunther’s Millions, a four-part Netflix docuseries premiering on Feb. 1. An investigation into the pooch’s wealth that exposes both public deceptions and personal hang-ups, it’s a non-fiction effort of outrageous absurdity, replete with revelations about money laundering, cult-like behavior, animal abuse, Nazi-esque eugenics, wild orgies, and porn stars.
Gunther, you’ll be happy to hear, participates in none of the aforementioned bacchanalia. Yet even bestiality plays a small part in Gunther’s Millions, via the briefly floated idea in the tabloids that the dog had given birth to a human infant. It had not, but Gunther certainly did spawn plenty of news coverage courtesy of his caretaker Maurizio Mian, whose mother was renowned (and became rich) for her role at the head of a pharmaceutical company that developed a breakthrough treatment for osteoporosis.
Mian graduated medical school and was, until his late thirties, a university professor. His life took a drastic turn, however, when his mother’s close friend, German Countess Karlotta Leibenstein, passed away and, with no heirs, left her fortune to her dog Gunther—and Mian, with his own mom in failing health, decided to step in as the human by the canine’s side.
Mian assumed this role because of his close friendship with the son of “Aunt Carla,” who had struggled from an early age with depression and, at the age of 26, took his own life. Being Gunther’s handler was a complicated job, given that the Countess’ will had numerous stipulations that had to be followed to a tee.
A Gunther Trust was established, which owned a number of subsidiary Gunther corporations as well as a yacht, a stake in a horse-racing company, and various other businesses that are apparently too private (or unsavory) to mention here. Eager to turn his employer into a celebrity, Mian had Gunther record an album, titled “Wild Dog,” which was as awful as expected. When that didn’t make a big enough splash, he relocated his four-legged boss to Miami, purchased Madonna’s old house for a cool $7.5 million, and founded The Burgundians, an entertainment group that sang and danced on Gunther’s behalf.
This is as nutty as it sounds, and there’s a lot more craziness dispensed by Gunther’s Millions. Through interviews with Mian, his ex-wife Carla Riccitelli and spokesperson Lee Dahlberg (both of whom were Burgundians), and current Gunther PR chief Lucy Clarkson, director Aurelien Leturgie’s docuseries explicates that The Burgundians were a rotating collection of aspiring model-actors selected by Mian and casting director Ed Arenas as exemplars of young, vibrant sexuality.
While they were promoted in the media as a fun-loving Spice Girls-style troupe, enjoying the good life with their dog benefactor, they were also, it turns out, test subjects in Mian’s “scientific experiments.” In short: Mian and his cohorts were studying the Burgundians—as they had wild partner-swapping and group sex—in order to determine the ultimate means of achieving happiness.
Mian’s scheme was ostensibly motivated by his desire to honor the wishes of the late Countess, who’d wanted to discover a way to prevent the depression that had doomed her son. It was also more than a bit dim-bulb sex cult-y, and Gunther’s Millions employs new interviews and archival footage to underscore the sheer silliness of the entire enterprise, whose scientific legitimacy was somewhere between zero and zilch.
When the Burgundians fell apart, Mian moved back to Italy in 2001, hired Garren James—who now runs the world’s most successful straight male escort business—and embarked upon a spending spree that included the purchase of two soccer teams whose spokespeople were adult film actresses La Cicciolina and Valentine Demy. As far as farces go, it was an impressively long-running one.
Would you believe something fishy was going on here? Gunther’s Millions holds off for as long as possible before revealing that Mian’s narrative about Gunther wasn’t wholly accurate. In fact—spoiler alert!—almost none of it was real. Director Leturgie digs deep enough to discover that just about every facet of Mian’s story about Gunther, the Countess, and her son was a sham constructed to avoid Italian tax laws through Lichtenstein loopholes. S
till, such bombshells are less jaw-dropping than Mian’s decision to form another new sexy-time group of hunky airheads known as The Magnificent 5—led by Fabrizio Corona, aka the “Italian Charlie Sheen,” a heavily tattooed tabloid egomaniac and criminal—whose purpose was to be so good-looking, so rich, and so joyful that they would become a human ideal.
Then, when they procreated, they’d give birth to a perpetually cheerful new master race.
Mian cites Heinrich Himmler in Gunther’s Millions so he’s not totally clueless about his chosen path. Rather than an outright villain, though, Leturgie portrays him as a pathetic, attention-seeking liar and crook whose every outlandish move was the byproduct of his emotional and psychological problems. Even so, it also treats him with relative kid gloves, going light on condemnation despite his innumerable falsehoods and deviant practices. Mian comes across as an inveterate huckster, to the point that he even pitches another lie to Leturgie after the credits roll—just because he thinks it’ll up the proceedings’ shock value—and yet the show treats him as more of a colorful curiosity than a cretin perpetrating cons with Gunther’s assets.
As for the German shepherd himself, Gunther is a peripheral figure in his own legend, eating gourmet steaks served by private chefs, gallivanting about with hardbodies in the pool, and generally being a happy-go-lucky pawn in others’ self-serving games. It appears to be quite the comfortable lifestyle, and certainly more than any one pet deserves. Yet the outrage generated over a dog enjoying this degree of luxuriousness is offset by the grossness of the men and women surrounding him, all of whom eventually out themselves as charlatans, hangers-on, and/or lowlifes content to profit from a scam that attorney and tax evasion expert Jack Blum rightfully sums up as “all absolutely low-grade comedy.”