In 1975, Ted Ngoy fled the war in Cambodia with his wife and three kids and arrived in America as a penniless refugee. Within a decade, he had become a multimillionaire with a lakeside mansion, fancy European cars and a doughnut empire in Southern California that even Dunkin’ couldn’t rival there.
In the documentary “The Donut King,” Alice Gu traces the mercurial arc of Ngoy’s American dream. The movie’s zippy opening montage, enlivened by colorful animation and an electronic score, follows a skater through various streets in Southern California. Doughnut shops are ubiquitous in the region — and a large majority, the movie says, are owned by Cambodians.
In interviews, Ngoy and his family recount the origins of this phenomenon. Having learned the business at Winchell’s Donuts before successfully setting up his own shop, Ngoy began to train other Cambodian refugees, leasing stores to them. As he amassed his wealth, he also became a beneficent exemplar in the community and a fixture of America’s doughnut industrial complex.
Gu contextualizes Ngoy’s ascent with a dense, sometimes tonally inconsistent stream of archival footage chronicling the Cambodian genocide that drove refugees to the United States; American economic policy in the 1970s and ’80s; and the legacy of immigrant-run mom-and-pop shops in California.
But Ngoy’s eventual crises, as dramatic as his successes, aren’t accorded the same analytical attention. Too sentimental in its final act, “The Donut King” doesn’t quite manage to connect the dots between Ngoy’s financial troubles and the voracious capitalism that enabled his rise. The result is a cheery portrait of immigrant entrepreneurship that lacks