The well-done documentary film is a singular, wonderful piece of art. A great documentary can inspire, expose, educate, elucidate – and sometimes, do all of those things of that at once. I think they work best when they tackle a complicated issue, make us question our preconceived notions, and teach us things along the way.
For many of us, nothing is more complicated than money. Should I dollar-cost average? How quickly should I pay down my debt, and which balances should I tackle first? Should I do a 15-year or a 30-year mortgage? The questions are endless. And while it’s worthwhile to get down and dirty with the minutia, it’s also important to step back from time to time and take in the whole picture.
These documentaries allow us to learn about money, personal finance, economics, and life from a bird’s eye view. Each offers actionable takeaways that can be applied to the everyday, but the viewer must draw those out from the larger tapestry. That process is both engaging and rewarding.
The following films address inequality, personal finance, entrepreneurship, overcoming financial setbacks, motivation, and more. The lessons are timeless, and the presentations are beautiful. These six documentaries will change the way you think about money.
This 2010 five-part series won an Oscar, and for good reason. It expertly depicts how the 2008 U.S. financial crisis happened and who was responsible in an intimate, eye-opening fashion. It shows how the modern debt-based monetary system offers many benefits, but can come tumbling down fast in the face of ineptitude, corruption, and recklessness.
If this doesn’t make you want to assess your appetite for risky investments, you have a bolder constitution than me. It also makes you realize that there are more “black swans” looming on the horizon, and the best way to be prepared is to have an emergency fund and a rock steady plan.
‘The Ascent of Money’
This documentary accomplishes the tricky task of condensing 2,000 years of financial history in a concise and engaging fashion. I feel like I would have done myself a favor had I watched this documentary before going to college. That way, I would have had a better understanding of the role of money throughout history as I entered into my introductory economics courses. Plus, it’s downright fascinating. I never would have thought that a once small bond market in Renaissance-era Italy kicked off modern financing as we know it.
The film does a particularly good job of making the viewer understand that money is only as real as the agreements and laws that underpin it. If you want to make lasting change with regards to how the monetary system works, it’s going to have to start at a grassroots level.
‘Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room’
This film is a fantastic complement to “Inside Job.” It details how Enron, one of the biggest energy companies of all time, turned out to be a built on a house of cards.
It’s riveting to watch the story develop, as it’s like a real-world “Breaking Bad.” The leaders of Enron start out with good intentions, but greed and overconfidence lead them down a dark road. One of the most shocking scenes is when the viewer hears real recordings of how Enron executives dealt with an energy crisis happening in California in the early 2000s. They not only cheer the rolling blackouts that are occurring, but they jack up their energy prices in a way that can only be seen as ruthless extortion.
When I watch it, I see parallels to the worst aspects of the financial services industry. If you’re not careful with who you trust, you might end up with someone who does unethical, dangerous, and ultimately tragic things with your hard-earned money. The Enron executives were widely believed to be brilliant people, but looks can be deceiving.
Many of us believe that if we were to suddenly come into millions of dollars, we’d finally be happy and content. It would be even better if we got that money as a reward for working on something we love.
Yet, that’s what happens to thousands of professional athletes every year. What happens after these cash windfalls can be sobering.
“Broke” shows how formerly rich athletes lost their fortunes. Sometimes they go broke because of faults of their own, but just as often it’s due to predatory “friends” or incompetent financial advisors. It reveals in gripping fashion how the people you surround yourself with are crucial to your future financial success.
A boatload of money won’t necessarily set you up for life. Without prudence and solid money management skills, there’s no sum that can’t be squandered.
‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’
This film that doesn’t directly deal with finances, but if you look beneath the surface, valuable business and life lessons emerge. It tells the story of how 85-year-old Jiro Ono operates his critically-acclaimed, Michelin three-star sushi restaurant. The restaurant is not in a fancy French hotel and it wasn’t born out of millions of dollars of funding. It is tucked away in a dim, underground Tokyo subway station. Yet, visitors flock in from all over the world and there is a years-long wait list for a seat. The question is, how did little old Jiro do this?
The amazing revelation is that there is no “secret sauce,” no magic formula, no shortcut to success. Jiro is just a regular guy who found his passion and worked at it as hard as he could. He faced setback after setback over the course of his career, but he stayed true to his passion and trusted that with enough preparation and focus he could overcome anything. He didn’t focus on accolades, but rather on working as hard as he could to find the best ingredients and prepare them in the best way he knew how.
In the end, you see that trial-and-error was his “secret sauce”. He got better and better at making sushi as the years went on, and ultimately word of his mastery spread. It’s an inspirational look at just how far you can get with perseverance and single-minded focus.
It’s a problem all too familiar to millions of Americans – bills are piling up, money is running low, and you’re behind on your credit card payments. The credit card interest rates are onerous, and your debt is growing faster than your income. It’s a sad and frustrating position to be in. How did it happen? That’s the question ‘Maxed Out’ tries to answer.
The film explores our credit card-obsessed culture not by demonizing those that overspend, but by showing how several different factors make credit card use very hard to resist. It shines in its ability to evoke emotions by showing just how powerfully real people are affected by credit card problems.
Predatory lending practices are examined, as well as how the laws are written to benefit credit card issuers as opposed to the regular folks who are affected by their unethical business practices.
The film makes you realize that, yes, banks and lawyers are going to act in their own best interest, but also that each of us has to take more personal responsibility for our actions. Ultimately, you sign the agreements, and we need to be better at assessing what we really need and what the best methods are for funding our lives.
While documentaries can never replace textbooks, they are very useful tools for visual learners. These films can serve as a useful jumping-off point toward learning how to be wiser with your money. Coupled with some great books on the topic, anyone can use them to become more informed consumer, a better investor, and a stronger entrepreneur.
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