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Top 20 Films about Finance: From Crisis to Con Men

Fallout from the Financial Crisis

Media depictions of the finance industry weren’t too flattering to begin with, but the financial crisis of 2008 sparked a flurry of harsh documentaries and docudramas that examined the crisis’s underpinnings, including ethical lapses.

The Ascent of Money (2008; documentary; 120 minutes; financial history)

In this documentary, based on a book with the same title, Niall Ferguson, author and academic, traces the evolution of money, bond markets, insurance, and the subprime mortgage debacle. A key lesson from this documentary is the same as that from history in general: This time is not so different; it has happened before — and more than once. We need only read history to find out. Ferguson’s thesis is that the history of money can help explain all human history. “There was one huge possibility created by the emergence of money as a system of mutual trust — a possibility that would revolutionize world history. It was the idea that you could rely on people to borrow money from you and pay it back at some future date.” That’s why, explains Ferguson, the root of credit is credo, Latin for “I believe.” This fast-paced documentary was filmed in a variety of locations, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, Russia, and Chile. The two-hour version of this documentary comprises six episodes, starting with the origin of credit and ending with globalization. This is how Ferguson puts it: “Because we take it for granted, we tend to underestimate the extent to which our entire civilization is based on the borrowing and lending of money. No, it doesn’t literally make the world go round. But it does make vast quantities of people, goods, and services go round the world from Babylon to Bolivia.”

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009; documentary; 127 minutes; capitalism)

This may well be the most provocative film on the list. Made by Michael Moore, who is described in the trailer as “the most feared film director in America,” it hits Wall Street hard, gives voice to some of the views held by ordinary Americans, and goes after the ideology of free market capitalism. It does so in the context of the social cost of the financial crisis in the United States. An early line by Moore provides a good indication of the content: “This is capitalism, a system of taking and giving, mostly taking.” The documentary shows how those being evicted from their homes or laid off from their jobs feel, something that statistics cannot adequately convey. Here is a line from an American being evicted from his home: “There’s gotta be some kind of rebellion between the people that have nothing and the people that’s got it all.” The film openly questions the political power of financial institutions. (It has some shocking scenes, such as one in which the chairman of Merrill Lynch tells US President Ronald Reagan, who is making a speech, to “speed it up.”) Moore documents the failures of capitalism in the United States, how the regulatory system seems to privatize profits and socialize losses, and how large financial institutions write the rules.

Why Are We All in Debt? (2009; documentary; 26 minutes; alternative monetary system)

This documentary is the shortest film on my list. As the title suggests, it addresses a fundamental question that puzzles many: How come we are all in debt? The principal writer and presenter in this documentary is the Islamic finance author and former bond-derivatives dealer Tarek El Diwany. He points out that according to conventional wisdom, both the disease and the cure of the financial crisis are the same: “On the one hand, we are told that our financial crisis is the result of too much debt. But then we are told that the solution is that the banks lend more. How can that be?” Made in England, it is probably the only Islamic finance–themed documentary of its kind. Taking a historical perspective, the film explains the origin of paper money, modern-day interest, and fractional reserve banking and its impact on the world around us. The documentary describes paper money as part of the problem: “Paper money is a promise to pay that is never kept. You can’t go to a bank and get your ten pounds’ worth of gold.” The film does not just explain a problem, it also offers a solution — an alternative financial system in which the money supply is controlled by neither the banking establishment nor the government.

Inside Job (2010; documentary; 105 minutes; financial crisis and regulation)

One of the most insightful documentaries on the 2008 financial crisis, this film, narrated by Matt Damon, makes the case that the crisis could have been avoided if regulation had been adequate. An early line sets the tone: “This crisis was not an accident. It was caused by an out-of-control industry.” It is similar in spirit to Capitalism: A Love Story but strikes a more serious tone and goes about analyzing the crisis, largely through a series of interviews with well-placed individuals — politicians, journalists, and academics. As described by director Charles Ferguson, the documentary is about “the systemic corruption of the United States by the financial services industry and the consequences of that systemic corruption.” Made in the United States, Iceland, England, France, Singapore, and China, the film has its share of powerful scenes and hard-hitting interviews with academics and policymakers alike. In a hearing where representatives of Wall Street are being grilled by US legislators, one legislator passionately says: “You come to us today, telling us, ‘We are sorry, and we won’t do it again. Trust us.’ Well, I have some people in my constituency, and they actually robbed some of your banks. And they say the same thing.”

Too Big to Fail(2011; drama; 99 minutes; systemic risk)

Based on the book with the same title, this film is about the 2008 financial crisis, thebankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, and the subsequent bank bailouts. Its title is a phrase that has entered into the popular lexicon because of the financial crisis. Like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, this docudrama covers the subject of moral hazard. The US Treasury Secretary is shown saying, “We are not bailing out Lehman. Wall Street has a gambling problem. If government keeps covering their losses, they never learn anything.” Like many films on my list, this one is highly critical of Wall Street. Still, the film is unusual because it provides a reconstruction of the closed-door meetings of important real-life figures — such as the US Treasury Secretary, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and heads of investment banks — as they negotiate the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). You have to follow the dialogue closely to know what is going on, which probably makes it more suitable for hard-core finance fans. At the end of the film, viewers are told that the remaining Wall Street institutions are, once again, too big to fail.

via cfainstitute.org