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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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.