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.   


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.


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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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

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Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.

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