The world’s best films about financial fraud and crime

Financial swindles are a perfect topic for movies. On the one hand, they are addictive entertainment, on the other hand, they help to realize that somewhere, maybe even around the corner, there are plenty of tricksters.

Sensational American films about financial frauds

WALL STREET (1987) dir. Oliver Stone

This is a film about the financial crisis that shows what the Wall Street stock exchange looks like in reality. The main character of the film is Gordon Gekko. He is surrounded by splendor and beautiful people. Only one thing matters to him in life — money. His opposite character is the young banker Bud Fox, whose example shows how people (even those who act ethically) can bend their own rules and silence their conscience to get rich.

To please his boss, Bud reveals to him a confidential information from his father about Bluestar airlines — that its share prices are likely to go up due to the dismissal of the plane crash lawsuit. This starts a series of unethical, and often illegal, information gathering (tracking, theft). Wall Street is a financial film that perfectly portrays human greed.

The biggest advantage of this adaptation is a case study of financial scams seen from the inside— more precisely, how ideas for scams are born, who should be persuaded or bribed and how to mask it all (e.g. setting “behind the curtain” individual prices of Anacott Steel shares only for Wildman).

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) dir. Martin Scorsese

The main character of Scorsese’s film — Jordan Belfort, is a purebred wolf from Wall Street. Some critics believe that thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio who played Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the best films about financial scams in the history of cinema.

The protagonist of this film had a very quick and downright overwhelming success that brought him power, money and a sense of impunity. This character was not afraid of any tax embezzlement, accepting bribes or basically any other methods of bending the law, which include the white collar crimes, because the protagonist didn’t care about restrictions.

A swindle that is especially remembered from this film is the so-called the pump and dump scheme, i.e. circulating false information in order to push up the price of shares. It’s by spreading false rumors that Belfort succeeded do much in selling worthless stocks.

BIG SHORT (2015) dir. Adam Kay

The big advantage of this production is that the more difficult issues in the world of finance are explained in a simple way by the characters who conduct a conversation with the viewer and explain how the crime happened. Thanks to this clever procedure, even the average person will understand what for example a bull market is.

This is a film about financial scams showing how the financiers hide the existence of a credit bubble and why they do such things. Although the plot revolves around the real events of 2008, people who took loans in Swiss francs in Poland, which were supposed to be extremely beneficial, will certainly find many similarities to their experience in Big Short. During the screening, the viewer can see how large financial institutions work. They can also get to know the bankers better, who are convinced of their infallibility, so they do not take care of the possible consequences of their actions. It seems that they just do whatever they want.

Documentary films about financial scams worth watching

INSIDE JOB (2010) dir. Charles Ferguson

This is a film about financial scams that exposes the ugly truth and explains who and what was responsible for the 2008 market crash. The makers of this business movie tried to answer the question of whether this event was accidental or avoidable.

The director of the film presented the facts through conversations with representatives of financial institutions, politicians and journalists — people who know finances best, and at the same time are often involved in spreading financial propaganda and unreliable knowledge.

This financial document will explain to you how the market collapsed. It all started with a violation of US law that prohibited banks from investing in the stock market. According to Ferguson, even institutions that people trust can have a skeleton in the closet. He presented his hypothesis with examples such as the investment bank Credit Suisse, which in fact poured funds into Iran’s nuclear program, and Citibank, which siphoned off approximately $100 million from Mexico in drug-related activities.

NOIRE FINANCE (2012) dir. Fabrizio Calvi and Jean-Michel Meurice

This is a two-episode French documentary, about the financial crisis in 2008 and some others. The document was created thanks to experts with whom the authors conducted long interviews. Examples of great economic crises are analyzed there and do you know who is responsible for all those disasters? The great financiers and ordinary people who make mistakes, and not - as it would be expected - human greed.

The reflection in this movie about financial frauds is clear: people don’t learn from mistakes, meaning the same financial scam could repeat itself in the decades over and over again. The document also contains references to modern times and the fact that business doesn’t draw knowledge from modern economics.

BETTING ON ZERO (2016) dir. Ted Braun

Betting on Zero is an American documentary about William A. Ackman who revealed to the world that Herbalife is a financial pyramid. More precisely, he exposed frauds and data that clearly showed the illegal business model of the company. In fact, in 2016, this MLM giant was accused of four unfair business practices and fined $200 million. Herbalife was also ordered to change its business model.

What type of business fraud was it about? First of all, convincing ordinary people that they will make a fortune with Herbalife. People who were joining the sales program and investing their life savings were loosing them rapidly, because in fact the commissions and product prices imposed by the company were too high to make the business profitable. It even turned out that when someone opened a network point and recorded losses, they “resold” this point to someone who had not yet learned the essence of the company’s operation. As a result, only the big players at the top of the pyramid were earning money.

Unfortunately, 1.5 million defrauded Herbalife sellers and distributors have only been compensated $ 10 per head. The court did not accept the class action lawsuit.

Before you watch this movie, know that Bill Ackman had his own private interest in plunging Herbalife down. As the CEO of an investment fund, he decided to borrow the company’s shares and sell them immediately at market price only to buy them back at a lower price. This procedure is called a Short Selling and is only possible when a company’s share prices actually fall. It is worth adding here that Ackamn’s plans failed because Herbalife’s shares only fell “for a while.” They then increased very quickly, causing Ackman to lose approximately $500 million.

SOUR GRAPES (2016), dir. Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas

Sour Grapes is another financial movie worth watching. It tells the story of an inconspicuous man who started his business in the luxury wine industry and quickly drew millions from investors. In this production, the main character decides to use wine specialists and start one of the most spectacular financial scams in this industry.

Viewers may be amazed and wonder how the man managed to achieve his goals. The answer is simple. The protagonist of the film about financial fraud found a certain need for very rare and very expensive wines among many wine connoisseurs. Such rare vines are actually not being drunk at all(more often they are just trophies). So it was hard to guess that they were not authentic.

THE MADOFF HUSTLE (2009) and CHASING MADOFF (2011), prod. Roger Corke

These are two British films about the financial crisis, and more precisely about the financial pyramid created by Bernard Madoff — the owner of one of the largest financial companies on Wall Street. Madoff was arrested on December 11, 2008, and then sentenced to 150 years in prison.

Bernard Madoff created a financial pyramid by which he extorted $65 billion from clients of funds that were associated with his company. Madoff guaranteed investors steady profits, which reached even 10%, even during the crisis. His actions were discovered and revealed by the analyst Harry Markopolos who in just a few minutes verified the information provided by Madoff and described it as mathematically and legally impossible.

Both of these documentary films about finances show that Madoff was a good orator and manipulator — the viewer using his example can learn about techniques of persuading participation in similar financial crimes.

Financial scams in Polish films

BANKSTERZY (2020) dir. Marcin Ziębiński

The main character in this finance movie is a bank clerk and she is looking for a chance to prove herself to her boss. As a result she decided (without the slightest scruples) to recommend to all her clients her employer’s latest currency product — a loan in Swiss francs.

In Poland, the Swiss franc loan scandal has not been going away for several years. All banks in Poland participated in it, and the matter has still not been resolved. The Polish Financial Supervision Authority’s decision from 2021 says that banks in Poland had no influence on the change in the currency exchange rate and that the increase in loan costs would take place even despite the controversial conversion clause in the contracts. However, the Swiss franc lobby blames financial institutions for unclear contractual provisions and for creating the illusion of an excellent loan option. So again we are dealing with spreading untrue information and, it can be said, a certain naivety of people. As many as 1 million Poles were persuaded to take a loan in Swiss francs, hoping that the zloty would remain strong for a long time.

Although the production of this film about finances leaves a lot of space for discussion, we must admit that the idea was interesting and brought the viewers closer to the profiles of ruthless financial sharks.

UKŁAD ZAMKNIĘTY (2013) dir. Ryszard Bugajski

The scenario for this movie was based on real events, and more precisely on the story of Paweł Rey, an polish entrepreneur from Krakow, operating, among others, at Polmozbyt Kraków SA. The plot of this movie focuses on an investigation in which Rey and his business associates were accused: acting in a criminal group that took over companies with the participation of the Polish treasury, and then sold these companies for pennies.

Entrepreneurs from Polmozbyt’s funds bought blocks of shares that gave them control over certain companies. Then they transferred assets from this company to other private companies or to their own accounts. In this way, they obtained approx. PLN 40 million. These Polish entrepreneurs were also accused of money laundering and selling Polmozbyt’s real estate below their market value.

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