Poster for The Donut King (2020), dir. Alice Gu (courtesy Sunshine Sachs)

After fleeing the Khmer Rouge for the US with his family in 1975, Ted Ngoy got into the donut business. As he achieved success, he lent a helping hand to fellow Cambodian refugees, paving the way for them to essentially lead the donut business in Southern California. It’s the kind of immigrant success stories people typically love in the US, but business success did not prove fulfilling for Ngoy in the long run, and he entered a brutal, decades-long cycle of gambling addiction and myriad failures. The Donut King, Alice Gu’s new documentary on Ngoy, traces these multiple rises and falls.

Following the strange arc of Ngoy’s life, which also includes an abortive stint with Buddhism ascetism and several defeated political campaigns back in Cambodia, demonstrates how there’s never truly a simple rags-to-riches story. Lurking beneath the “American Dream” is the fundamental emptiness of its conception of success. The Donut King is hardly an anticapitalist polemic, but it doesn’t need to be, since this comes through clear enough in its story.

The Donut King opens in virtual theaters October 30 and on VOD November 20.

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.