Financial crime is an ever-evolving organism that decimates its victims. Just as law enforcement catches onto one scam or tactic, dozens of more sophisticated, innovative scams unfold.
We know from our AML Bank Fines Report Q1-2021 that many financial infractions are unintentional. Fines for lack of compliance, for example, often stem from the complexity of doing business—they don’t generally indicate malice.
Then there’s the intentional sort of financial crime. From multi-million-dollar ponzi schemes to money laundering by criminal organizations, intentional financial fraud takes many forms. And, as you’ll find out, not all financial negligence is technically illegal.
The following documentaries are master classes on financial crime. They document some of the most notorious financial scandals of the past century. With all due empathy for the victims of these crimes, the directors of these films manage to make financial scammery a darned entertaining watch.
Grab your popcorn and M&M’s...
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room details the stunning rise and demise of Enron Corporation. In telling the riveting story, director Alex Gibney documents the related fall of Arthur Andersen, a former member of the “Big Five” accounting firms and Enron’s corporate bookkeeper.
This award-winning film also sheds light on recent energy crises in California and Texas. The details of the documentary derive from the book The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean. Financial crime is material to Enron’s collapse, with deceptive mark-to-market accounting being a central focus.
Charles Ferguson directs the 2010 documentary Inside Job.
Fresh off of the 2008 financial crisis, this film poignantly deconstructs the house of cards that plunged the global economy into chaos.
The film won the 2011 Oscar for Best Documentary.
The director describes Inside Job as an expose of "the systemic corruption of the United States by the financial services industry and the consequences of that systemic corruption".
The Madoff Affair
The Madoff Affair is a documentary episode from PBS Frontline.
While virtually every American is familiar with the name “Bernie Madoff”, they may not understand precisely how he built his empire of deceit.
Even more perplexing was his ability to instil unquestioning trust in both victims and regulators. This episode is “the story behind the world’s first truly global Ponzi scheme”.
With a running time just shy of an hour, this is a primer on how Ponzi schemes work and how our regulatory agencies are not always adept at detecting them.
HBO’s Generation Hustle makes one thing clear: scamming isn’t just for Baby Boomers and their older counterparts. Millennials and Gen Y-ers are taking the torch lit by the likes of Bernie Madoff and running with it.
From frat boy ponzi schemers to world-traveling con men, Generation Hustle tells the stories of “brilliant and brazen young individuals...pulling off the most wildly inventive scams of our time”.
Does Generation Hustle detail some darned-entertaining financial crimes? Absolutely. Are they still financial crimes? You bet. Fortunately, each episode examines the consequences of each scammer’s daring actions.
Life and Debt
Stephanie Black directs Life and Debt, a 2001 documentary focused on the harmful macroeconomic effects of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) lending practices.
The film raises thought-provoking questions about the razor’s edge of legal finance. It may also change viewers’ perspective about the trade-offs of free trade. Roger Ebert sums up Life and Debt’s core premise:
“Developing economies of the Third World are deliberately destroyed and turned into captive markets for the rich nations, while their once self-sufficient inhabitants become cheap labor and local competition is penalized.”
Does this qualify as financial crime, or simply global economic policy as usual? Life and Debt explores this and other pertinent questions.
Plunder: The Crime of Our Time
An early scene from Plunder: The Crime of Our Time includes a quote from former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. It reads as follows:
“It can fairly be said that the chain of catastrophic bets made over the past decade by a few hundred bankers may well turn out to be the greatest nonviolent crime against humanity in history”.
This is the launching point for the hour-long documentary, which traces trillions of funds lost, pilfered, and largely unaccounted for in connection with the 2008 financial crisis.
The 2011 documentary Unraveled tells the story of lawyer Marc Dreier, who went from respected Manhattan-based bigwig to loathed pariah facing life in prison for securities fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering. Dreier founded a prestigious Park Avenue law firm branded with his own name, yet perpetrated a $400 million fraud scheme.
Director Marc Simon aims to answer the question: what in the world was this guy thinking?
The film is a “fascinating human portrait” which shows Dreier during his house arrest, awaiting sentencing and coming to terms with the realities of being a white-collar felon.
The Warning is a 2009 episode of PBS Frontline. It traces the origins of the 2008 financial crisis to the 1990s, when there was a “concerted effort not to regulate the emerging, highly complex, and lucrative derivatives markets”.
These derivatives markets included collateralized mortgages, the hollow bedrock of the Great Recession. As you watch this episode, remember that most of those responsible for the 2008 financial crisis never went to jail. Therefore, The Warning is a lesson in the immense potential of supposedly legal financial maneuvers to cause an absolute bloodbath.
The China Hustle
The China Hustle is a 2018 documentary about “a still-unfolding financial crime so big, it has the power to affect all of our wallets”. One critic explains that “If you have a 401(k) that's lost value, or if you've lost a portion of your pension, there's a chance this picture explains part of the reason why.”
Director Jed Rothstein explores the troubling ties between American investors and markets, questionable Chinese companies, and U.S. lawmakers and regulators. The theme of deceptive accounting for the purpose of misleading investors is similar to Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Which is fitting, because the producers of The Smartest Guys in the Room also produced The China Hustle.
Dirty Money is a Netflix docuseries with multiple seasons covering the most notorious financial scandals in history.
Individual episodes cover money laundering by British multinational investment bank HSBC, the Wells Fargo account fraud scandal, manufacturing-related pollution in Texas, and other high-profile stories.
These are roughly hour-long mini-documentaries showing the many faces of and vehicles for financial crime.
Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Casino Jack and the United States of Money profiles notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Acclaimed director Alex Gibney displays both the individual exploits of Abramoff, which would land him in prison, and the greater role of lobbying in the American political system.
The story weaves in Native American-owned casinos, Congressional bribes, armed conflict in Angola, and mafia hits. It’s a stranger-than-fiction story but is, in fact, a documentary.
The Ascent of Money
The Ascent of Money is a four-hour documentary series produced by PBS.
It is based on the book of the same title by economist and historian Niall Ferguson.
The series traces the history of money through the lens of the 2008 financial crisis. It examines both the useful aspects of money and finance and the grift that is intrinsic to all financial systems.
Part 4: Planet Finance touches most pointedly on the problems that plague 21st-century financial systems. This includes institutional negligence that triggers ruinous events like recessions.
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
Not every financial crime is a ponzi scheme or classic case of money laundering.
Sometimes the deception is wrapped up in a more elaborate facade, as The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley proves.
The 2019 film from HBO and director Alex Gibney traces the precipitous ascent and equally precipitous fall of Elizabeth Holmes and her brainchild, Theranos.
How could a company once valued at $9 billion and poised to revolutionize blood testing lead to complete dissolution and charges of “massive fraud”? Watch this documentary to find out.
Sour Grapes is a mesmerizing true story that pairs wine, wealth, and forgery to engrossing effect. Those who are not keen on the minutiae of financial crime will appreciate this somewhat light-hearted strain of the money scam documentary.
Rudy Kurniawan is the antagonist. A “geeky kid drinking Merlot”, Kurniawan would con some of the world’s foremost wine connoisseurs into buying tens of millions of dollars worth of wine.
We won’t spoil the twist. We’ll only say that what Kurniawan was selling was, well, Sour Grapes.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
The infamous Fyre Festival rudely introduced a generation of millennials and their younger counterparts to the realities of fraud. Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened memorializes the time when hundreds of stoked music buffs were stranded on an unforgiving Bahamian island without shelter, sufficient food, or water.
It also documents how Fyre Festival founder Billy McFarland engaged in criminal fraud warranting a six-year prison sentence.
It’s a must-see documentary for those interested in how Generation Social is putting its twist on financial deception.
It’s not difficult for financial institutions to get into trouble. Criminals and cheats cleverly disguise their misdeeds, and it’s not always easy for financial institutions to learn exactly who they’re doing business with.
The stories and subjects that these documentaries feature aren’t guilty of forgivable negligence. They’re examples of intentional, gross misconduct that is generally of the criminal sort. Look no further than Bernie Madoff, Billy McFarland, Elizabeth Holmes, and Marc Dreier for evidence of wilful financial deceit.
These films also focus heavily on the events that precipitated the Great Recession. While much of this activity was technically not criminal, many would argue that it should have qualified as such.
Collectively, these films illustrate the importance of integrity in finance at both the individual and institutional levels. Here is to all of the compliance professionals helping expose financial crime in all of its forms. As the films show, your battle is certainly not an easy one, but is one worth fighting.