10 documentaries that will make you a lot smarter about money

There’s no escaping its vast power and utility for the human enterprise. Stories, great tales, and songs have all been written about the all-mighty dollar. Here's 10 documentaries that we think you'll enjoy.


Monetary policy pervades all areas of our lives whether we realize it or not. The proverbial financial forces have laid the foundations for both society and civilization. On a fundamental level, we can look at money in two different ways. It is a form of stored labor – both intellectual and physical and also a medium that conveys value for exchange.   

There’s no escaping its vast power and utility for the human enterprise. Stories, great tales, and songs have all been written about the all-mighty dollar.

“Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay and you're okay
Money, it's a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash”

Pink Floyd, Money

In the past two decades, a lot of diverse documentaries have been created on the subject. They range from covering the infamous 2008 market crash, balancing a life-work balance to the importance of the technological advent of fiat currency. Here are some of the most informative films on the subject.  

Maxed Out

Credit can be used as an excellent tool for leverage and financial health or it can be abused. There’s no end to how far in debt you can get yourself by being irresponsible with credit. It’s not just individual consumers that need to watch out either. Governments and businesses can put themselves way under by mismanaging credit.

Maxed Out was made in 2006 by James D. Scurlock. This film was prescient in its knowledge of the lurking corruption and mismanagement of credit in both the United States and abroad. It preceded one of the greatest financial crises of our time. This movie is an omen for what was to come just two years later.  

It’s been twelve years and we still haven’t seemed to have learned our lesson yet. Personal credit card debt is at an all-time high. Not to mention, many of the youth of our nation are in a serious student loan epidemic. While this film is dated, the points it makes are relevant to our time.

Inside Job

The economic crisis of 2008 was one of the worst in recent memory. Arguably because of unchecked banking regulations and greed prevalent in all strata of society, the global economy tanked and hit the floor. This 2010 film was directed by Charles Ferguson and led by actor Matt Damon.  

Ultimately many of the reforms suggested in the film were put into practice when the Dodd-Frank law passed around the time this was released. The summary of the act states:   After this crisis, phrases like bailouts and “too big to fail” entered the public vernacular. While there is still a ways to go in fixing the system, a new light had been shed on shady banking practices.

“An Act to promote the financial stability of the United States by improving accountability and transparency in the financial system, to end "too big to fail", to protect the American taxpayer by ending bailouts, to protect consumers from abusive financial services practices, and for other purposes.”

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

In this film, we follow renowned master sushi chef Jiro Ono. At 85 years old he runs of the greatest sushi restaurants in the world. But by the end of his career and into his twilight years, he’s thinking back on what his legacy really entailed.

This is a personable documentary that looks into what it means to sacrifice time and parts of your life to reach a grander goal. That is to say, is work and the attainment of riches or at least a fair amount of money the true meaning of success and happiness? This film captures this question through the life and achievements of Jiro Ono and makes the viewer reflect and maybe even reconsider what it is they’re chasing after.     

The Ascent of Money

Based on the book by Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money is an ambitious documentary that charts the progress and evolution of the financial system. It starts from way back in the cradle of civilization in Mesopotamia. Ferguson considers money to be the essential force or as he puts it "backstory" behind all of history. Calling it one of the most important technological inventions of all time. This film yet again revisits the 2008 economic crisis as an endpoint.

This film does a great job of weaving together financial education with financial history. It simplifies many things like bonds, the creation of the stock market, insurance and the fundamentals of the banking system. Prepare to be taken on a journey through this six-part series that covers everything from the famous Medici banking system to the 19th century Rothschilds.

The True Cost

The True Cost, made by Andrew Morgan, takes a look into a very pressing issue, but often overlooked problem in the fashion industry. He travels to Cambodia and Bangladesh to visit garment factories. There he’s faced with cruel and inhumane working conditions. Many garment workers only make $3 a day and are beat by bosses in a backwards working society.   

Through Indian cotton fields, we see the faces behind a multibillion-dollar industry. The True Cost weaves together economic disaster and ecological catastrophe into an eye-opening story of exploitation and greed.

Capitalism: A Love Story

Love him or hate him, Michael Moore produces some interesting documentaries. The film sets out to explore what Moore thinks is an equivalency between democracy and unchecked capitalism. Moore starts the documentary by saying this was an interest of his he’s had throughout his entire life.  

Like many of Moore’s films, he paints a compelling argument for one side of the story but neglects the other. He goes on to correctly describe unhinged and corrupted capitalism. But he shoehorns in socialism as the unquestioned panacea for all of our problems.

In line with the previous list of films mentioned, it also focuses on the great recession and housing bubble crash of 2008.   

Unraveled

Marc H. Simon’s Unraveled focuses in on one white collar criminal. Attorney Marc Dreier embezzled over $400 million from hedge funds and private individuals in a multi-year crime spree. Simon meets one on one with Dreier while he’s under house arrest awaiting his sentencing.

A majority of the film centers around Dreier reflecting about his decisions and what led him to this point. A graduate of Yale and Harvard, Dreier also possessed not only well-learned roots but was also naturally gifted. Even so, he fell into a legal quagmire of deceit and thievery as he attempted to keep up with his growing lavish lifestyle.

The End of Poverty?

Filmmaker Philippe Diaz sets out to get a complete and researched understanding of poverty throughout the world. Through the film, he interviews a litany of policymakers, scholars and more about the crippling problem of poverty. At the core of the film is a simple question that sets out to ask: If there is so much wealth and progress around the world, why is it that so many still live in abject poverty?

The film is powerfully narrated by Martin Sheen and spans the globe in its search for answers. It explores historical narratives and visits the poverty-struck countries it muses about. The sights seen in Bolivia show the real faces and people affected by unjust laws and corporate corruption.   

97% Owned

Sometimes we overlook some of the simplest questions about money. Such as, where does it come from? Who makes it? What happens to regular citizens when currencies and financial institutions break down and stop working? This documentary created by UK financial analyst Ann Pettifor, sets out to find the answers to these questions.

97% owned takes its title from a finding that states that commercial banks are responsible for creating a majority of money through the creation of loans – some say 97%. With a host of interviews with top economists and bankers, it looks into how banks are given the power to create money and have a hold over the economy. This short documentary packs in a lot of information.

Enron

Based on a book by former Fortune Magazine writers, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a warning for what can go wrong when a company is built off of unsound financials and hype. The film takes you through the beginning of the Enron scandal and what led up to this financial catastrophe in the first place.

It paints a chilling picture of the unbounded enthusiasm both its stockholders and the general public had for a company that wasn’t worth the paper its shares were printed on. At one point of the movie, it shows how an electrical power-line installer put his entire 401k savings into Enron stock. At the highest point in Enron’s pricing, it was worth some $300,000. By the time the company went insolvent, it disappeared to a measly $1,200.

Enron serves as one of the greatest cautionary tales to would-be investors or speculators. That bag of unrealized gains you think you’re holding might end up just being a bag full of nothing if you’re not careful.


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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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