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Top 20 Films about Finance: From Crisis to Con Men

Rogues, Con Men, and the “Greed Is Good” Set

The bulk of Hollywood dramas depict finance professionals as unscrupulous and money hungry. While some of these films are pure invention, there are a couple of documentaries in this group as well as a couple of films based on real-life scandals.

Wall Street (1987; drama; 126 minutes; insider trading)

This is the CAPM of finance films: Everyone in finance is supposed to know it, and whether it is any good is no longer the point. The film is about making fast money, and a lot of it, through insider trading. In its depth and intensity, this film towers above the finance films that came soon before or after, like Quicksilver (1986; 99 minutes; options trading) andWorking Girl(1988; 115 minutes; mergers and acquisitions). It is hard to find a list of top finance films that does not have this one at or near the top — and the iconic status of the villain, Gordon Gekko, raises troubling questions about the finance industry. These brief lines are strongly associated with the film: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” A clip from that very speech was recently used by the FBI in an insider-trading public service announcement that features Michael Douglas, who played Gekko.

Other People’s Money (1991; comedy; 103 minutes; corporate takeover)

This comedy depicts a clash between the so-called real economy and the financial markets as a corporate raider with his free market ethos takes on a family business with traditional values. A manufacturing unit is facing obsolescence, and the question is whether the unit and the jobs it has created will be liquidated to satisfy the shareholders or whether there is some way to return it to profitability. The film has a number of finance lessons to offer, particularly in company valuation. The raison d’être of the principal character, Lawrence “Larry the Liquidator” Garfield, is similar to that of Gordon Gekko inWall Street: “Whoever has the most when he dies, wins.” Garfield also delivers his own speech justifying the single-minded pursuit of money: “I don’t make anything. I’m making you money. And lest we forget, that’s the only reason any of you became stockholders in the first place. You wanna make money! You don’t care if they manufacture wire and cable, fried chicken, or grow tangerines.”

Barbarians at the Gate (1993; comedy; 107 minutes; leveraged buyout)

This is both a docudrama and a comedy. It is based on a book about the well-known and then-biggest leveraged buyout of food giant RJR Nabisco. It is a story of greed, egos, lust for luxury, high stakes, and treachery. The film offers an insider’s perspective on the brutal competition that surrounds a leveraged buyout (LBO). After the expensive failure of a smokeless cigarette, the CEO of RJR Nabisco draws up plans to buy the company outright. But an influential LBO guru, who initially gave the CEO the idea for the LBO, is unhappy that the CEO is using his idea without involving him, and they end up in a bidding war. As the LBO guru puts it, “It’s not the company. It’s the credibility. My credibility. I can’t just sit on the bench and let other people play the game. Not my game. Not with their rules.” Among other things, the movie also shows that a CEO may have little to do with the success of his company — and much to do with its failings. The movie features many humorous but telling lines, such as: “You know the three rules of Wall Street? Never play by the rules, never tell the truth, and never pay in cash.”

Rogue Trader (1999; drama; 101 minutes; equity futures trading)

When this film came out, in 1999, it was quite clear whom it was about — Nick Leeson, who brought down Britain’s oldest investment bank, Barings. Since then, alas, more such traders have followed in Leeson’s footsteps. The film is based on Leeson’s own book,Rogue Trader: How I Brought Down Barings Bank and Shook the Financial World. Once the star trader of Barings, he lost more than a billion dollars through unauthorized futures trading on the Singapore exchange. The film shows that his superiors had deluded themselves into believing that Leeson was earning large profits by putting their meaningless management-speak into action. That he was not subjected to the usual checks and balances between the front office and the back office helped Leeson hide what he was doing. The culture at Barings was also part of the problem: While greed was not officially good at Barings, being good was not good enough. Employees like Leeson had to keep swinging for the fences. Early in the film, explaining to his new team what futures trading is, Leeson says, “The truth of the matter is that we are not buying or selling anything real. It’s just numbers.” A bit later in the film, he says, “That’s all the market is, one giant casino.”

Boiler Room(2000; drama; 120 minutes; securities fraud)

This film depicts finance at its absolute worst: A group of lying, cheating, stealing young stockbrokers sell worthless stocks to people they can fool using high-pressure sales calls. “You will make your first million in three years” is the promise made by J.T. Marlin to its batch of young recruits. If Wall Street explains insider trading, this one explains the pump and dump. Money is everything for these guys, and they make their money by closing sales. As one of them puts it: “And there is no such thing as a no-sale call. A sale is made on every call you make. Either you sell the client some stock, or he sells you on a reason he can’t. Either way, a sale is made. The only question is, Who’s gonna close? You or him?!” The film is also the story of a son who finds it hard to live up to his father’s standards. He joins the dodgy brokers and discovers his inner salesman. Interestingly, these stockbrokers act as if they are not practicing fraud but, rather, are performing the art of sales at the highest level.

The Corporation (2003; documentary; 145 minutes; legal person)

The most destructive sociopath of modern times, according to this hard-hitting documentary, is the corporation itself. The opening line says it well: “One hundred and fifty years ago, the business corporation was a relatively insignificant institution. Today, it is all pervasive.” The Corporation is not strictly a finance film, but it deals with the concept of limited liability and externalities. Featuring a number of interviews with prominent thinkers, the documentary digs deep into the ideas underlying corporations, contrasting the natural person (human) with the legal person (the corporation) and exploring why some large, profit-hungry companies seem to have little regard for society and the environment. When I interviewed Bob Monks, a corporate governance pioneer, about his top learning resources on corporate governance, he named this film as “an all-time favorite.” Monks is interviewed in the film. His best line? “A corporation is an externalizing machine in the same way that a shark is a killing machine.” If you are interested in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues in finance, this film is one to watch.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005; documentary; 110 minutes; accounting fraud)

The sudden collapse of Enron in 2001, then one of the largest companies in the United States, is one of the best-known corporate governance disasters. This documentary, based on the book The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, analyzes that collapse and shows the underlying greed and arrogance of the company’s executives. It is the story of Enron turning real losses into fictional profits through accounting fraud. How Enron was making its money was a mystery that no one seemed to question. The documentary features a number of interviews, including those with former Enron executives and employees as well as financial analysts. “Enron is a company that deals with everyone with absolute integrity” was the official line as Enron went about business in quite a different way, such as mercilessly exploiting energy deregulation in California. As the film explains, Enron easily fooled everyone, including the financial analysts on Wall Street. The company ran an effective “campaign to capture the hearts and minds of stock analysts,” and its stock price soared. But accounting fraud can’t last forever, and eventually the excesses of Enron’s executives caught up with them.

Margin Call(2011; drama; 107 minutes; financial recklessness)

This is a relatively slow-paced story of an intense 24 hours in the life of a financial institution that is in deep trouble. The bank has large and leveraged speculative positions that are facing so much volatility that the losses could be greater than its market value. (Despite what the title of the film may suggest, there is in fact no margin call issued to or by the institution.) The risks are complex, and only one risk analyst (with a doctorate in rocket science) can really understand them. Reckless speculation, however, is not the institution’s only defining characteristic. Ruthlessness to its own employees is another. As it fires employees, its message to those remaining is, “Before this is all done, three of every ten guys who were standing between you and your boss’s job are now gone. That is your opportunity.” One of the lead actors who delivers this message to the remaining employees seems to have taken Gordon Gekko’s advice — if you need a friend, get a dog. Indeed, as he goes about firing people around him, he is worried about his sick dog, the only thing in the world to which he seems to have any emotional connection. The top boss at the bank shares a similar disdain for other human beings. When he is reminded that what the institution is considering selling to others is worthless, he makes his position clear: “We are selling to willing buyers at the current fair market price. So that we may survive.”

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2011; drama; 133 minutes; moral hazard)

Gordon Gekko is back, but this time in a feel-good film. After serving jail time for what happened in the prequel, Wall Street, the former insider is now an outsider. But he has not come back without some quotable quotes: “Someone reminded me I once said greed is good. Now it seems it is legal. Because everybody is drinking the same Kool-Aid.” UnlikeWall Street, this is a relatively complicated story, and the film devotes a good deal of time to the emotional drama of Gekko’s strained relationship with his daughter, her up-and-down relationship with her partner (played by Shia LaBeouf), and his relationship with his mother, whom he must repeatedly bail out from financial troubles. The film takes place within the context of the financial crisis, in which a young financier, Gekko’s daughter’s partner, a specialist in alternative energy, is trying to live a different kind of life on Wall Street — making money while doing good and avoiding the moral hazard of bailouts. Rather than blatantly violate the law as Gekko did in Wall Street, the young financier in this film prefers to work around it. Luck and design pit him against the same billionaire who is the enemy of Gekko. What is driving these people? Is it money, is it love, or is it simply madness? Gekko says, “It’s not about the money. It’s about the game, the game between people.”

via cfainstitute.org