Watching Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Oliver Stone, 2010) and the documentary Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, 2010) back to back proved to be a real treat. If you happened to have forgotten what got the world into this economic nightmare in the first place, these two films are sharp, insightful reminders. Michael Douglas reprises his sleazy, slithery role as Gordon Gekko very nicely. He manages to convince the viewer right up to the brink that he’s a changed man, and when his real intentions of greed are revealed, it’s both subtle and shocking even if expected. I wasn’t really convinced of his semi-redemption towards the end of the film. The David Byrne soundtrack was perfectly weird.
Narrated by Matt Damon, Inside Job presents a financial axis of evil, involving Washington, Wall Street, and the world’s top academic institutions. In it, we see a world of insane greed, depravity, and more, more, more. Money isn’t really a means to end for these people, but a pathology. The director doesn’t insert himself or his opinions into the documentary heavy-handedly. Like what a good documentarian ought to do, he allows the interviews and facts to speak for themselves. The film does well in describing complicated topics such as derivatives and securitization (perhaps made complicated so that the normal person didn’t know he was being taken for a ride until it was too late) and how deregulation allowed lenders, investment banks, insurance company AIG, and crediting agencies to create more and more money on an unstable base. Mortgages (many sub-prime, fueled by the system and predatory lendors itself) were packaged with other types of loans (e.g student loans, car loans) into instruments known as securities called CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) which were then sold to investors and speculators. Investment banks then bet against CDOs they didn’t own – AIG promised to pay if there were losses. Investment banks like Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, and Goldman Sachs intentionally made money on investor losses!
The rampant conflicts of interest between investment banks, government, and academia (Harvard, Columbia, London Business School, etc) and lack of policies for the need to disclose are also discussed. The very discipline of economics is attacked as being complicit in the 2008 financial crisis. Deregulation in the 1980 and onward paved the pathway for this inevitably, with almost zero checks & balances or accountability in the system. Current reforms are presented as being weak at best. And as always, the poorest segements of society end up suffering the most on account of the actions of a few. Collective inaction brought the whole system down. Individual companies’ desire for profits ended up destroying others and their own companies. Top brass at these places walked away from the wreckage unharmed, with their bonuses and pensions intact.
If it happened once, what’s to stop it from happening again? It didn’t stop Gekko.