In 1975, at the height of the Khmer Rouge's killing machine, a Cambodian refugee came to Los Angeles and built an empire based on doughnuts. A new documentary chronicles the fascinating saga of Ted Ngoy, "The Donut King," who made a fortune and then lost it all to a gambling addiction.
"It was a different take on a refugee story," said director Alice Gu, an L.A. native who'd long been enthralled by the rags-to-riches-to-rags story.
"This was a story about, a success story of what can happen when just given a chance and opportunity to thrive in an adopted homeland," she said. "And I liked that it put a human face on what a refugee is, for most people."
Within three years of his arrival, Ngoy had became a millionaire with his own chain of doughnut shops across the city.
He said he sponsored more than 100 Cambodian families to come to Los Angeles, where he provided them housing and jobs in his shops.
His model was so successful that for years, big chains like Dunkin' Donuts were unable to carve out their own markets in L.A.
He estimated his wealth at $20 million in the heyday of his enterprise. And then the money began disappearing as quickly as it appeared.
A gambling addiction, and trips to nearby Las Vegas, dwindled his enterprise. He sold off his shops, one by one, to pay his debts until there was nothing left.
"He had a pretty spectacular fall, and he lost everything that was more important than money: the respect of his community, the respect and the love of his family, and the love of his life," Gu said. "And I think that you ... learn some lessons after suffering those kinds of setbacks."
After losing everything, Ted went back to Cambodia, where he lives in Phenom Penh.
The families he sponsored continued running their businesses.
Today, more than 90% of independent doughnut shops in Los Angeles are owned by Cambodian families.
"It's incredible to think that one man had so much impact that affected hundreds and thousands of people," the director said.