7 Money Movies You Can (Actually) Learn From
Summer for my family means hot days hiding from the sun, warm evenings spent in our garden, and airy nights spent watching a film together on our home projector.
So obviously I’m a big fan of movies, and having worked in the finance world for a long time in one capacity or another, I also have my favorite money and finance movies.
So this week we thought we’d break down what we see as some of the top money and finance related movies that you can actually learn from.
What does this mean? Well certain very classic money movies won’t appear on our list. These deserve mentioning: Wall Street, Wolf of Wall Street, American Psycho, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Pursuit of Happyness are all classic movies about finance culture, but none of them really tries to teach the audience anything about money. They each are about important themes and can teach you other lessons, but for the purposes of this list, we’ll stick with movies that we see as more “educational” in regards to money and finance.
These movies contain more pointed lessons about how money works, the specific dangers of greed, of gambling, of fraud and theft. They address how finance works systemically, and teach us new ways to look at money and how we deal with it.
Also since I’m primarily an English speaker, this list is mostly in English. If you have other movies we haven’t seen, please share them with us on social media! We will be happy to watch them and even review them.
Boiler Room (2000)
Key Quote: “Anybody who tells you money is the root of all evil doesn’t ******* have any.”
A “boiler room” is an old word for a telephone sales operation that uses high pressure tactics, or sometimes legally questionable methods, to rope clients into buying things they don’t really want or understand. The term probably comes from the illegal gambling call centers of places like Chicago and New York City in the early days of the telephone, because they were mostly located in hard to find places underground – often in boiler rooms in the basements of buildings.
Boiler Room the film is about a modern (circa 2000) version of the classic boiler room. Only this boiler room sells penny stocks, which are shares in dubious or fraudulent companies that are not subject to much regulatory scrutiny. The film follows young Seth (Giovanni Ribisi), as he climbs from petty criminal to licensed stock broker inside a firm that crosses ethical lines with its sales tactics.
Key Lessons: The film expertly demonstrates how penny stock scams work, and how classic high-pressure sales techniques work in person and over the phone. These lessons can help you avoid these dangers yourself, even in their more modern variations via social media or YouTube.
Key Quote: “It’s all been arranged to get your money. That’s the truth about Las Vegas. We’re the only winners. The players don’t stand a chance.”
This classic Martin Scorcese gangster picture is surprisingly adept at explaining the economics and functioning of a modern casino, as well as the historical roots of Las Vegas, and the way in which organized crime and politicians collude to make it possible to steal and launder money from ordinary people.
Starring Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, this is a violent semi-factual film set in the 1970s, in the first great era of Las Vegas, before large corporations bought up most of the strip and tore down the classic mob-owned establishments. The film details how gangsters who control trade unions funnel clean and dirty money into and out of casinos while avoiding taxes or detection by the FBI.
Key Lessons: Often the appearance of prosperity and wealth is a facade used in order to trick regular people into acting on their greed – and giving up their hard earned money to grifters and thieves. Ultimately greed brings all of us to a bad end.
Key Quote: “I made one decision in my life based on money. And I swore I would never do it again.”
Moneyball is a dramatized, but overall still faithful adaptation of the more analytical non-fiction book of the same name, by economics writer Michael Lewis. The book delves deep into the world of professional baseball, through the lens of the famed Bill James’s famous “Sabermetrics” approach to sports team management.
In short, Moneyball is about looking at the world in ways other people refuse to do. It is about examining the assumptions underlying a system, and trying to find ways in which those assumptions may be wrong, or at least incomplete. The film follows Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pit), as he attempts to implement Sabermetrics, the rigorous use of statistical analysis to make spending decisions, into the everyday running of a lower-tier baseball team.
The true story documents his struggle in the public eye as he goes against a century of baseball tradition and wisdom to choose players and play strategies that no-one believes in but him, because he has the evidence to prove they work– at least on paper. The bittersweet film reminds us that there is value to be found even in people whom no one believes in.
Key Lessons: Sometimes traditional wisdom ignores value of people who have something important to contribute. We must always examine our assumptions about what someone’s worth is, in a monetary sense.
Margin Call (2011)
Key Quote: “It’s just money. It’s made up.”
This film, set vaguely in the hours before the financial crisis of 2008 began on Wall Street, follows the machinations of the management of a large and historic firm that realizes what’s about to happen, and is looking for a way to profit from it.
Inspired by the financial crisis, Margin Call imagines a company in which young analyst Peter (Zachary Quinto), suddenly discovers that the firm’s investments are about to collapse. The action of the film takes place over a single night, as this information, and the decisions about how to deal with it, wind their way up the corporate ladder all the way to the top.
The film contains some amazing performances from Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, and Kevin Spacey, who save an otherwise very talky film from becoming overly technical.
Key Lessons: Being fast and making bold choices is often the difference between success and failure. Talent, while important, does not always guarantee success.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Key Quote: “Only one thing counts in this life: Get them to sign on the line which is dotted.”
This profanity enriched film began as a Pulitzer Prize winning stage play by David Mamet. He returned to write the screenplay, expanding it to include an infamous scene with Alec Baldwin, from which the quote is taken.
Glengarry Glen Ross is about a boiler room full of real-estate hustlers – salesmen for disreputable investment schemes that prey on the weak willed with fast talk and wild dreams of riches. Under the repetitive and entrancing dialogue, the film wonderfully evokes the tension, the joy and the despair of the life of a salesman, with stellar performances from Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Al Pacino and Don Lemon.
Glengarry Glen Ross is not a story of likeable characters or good deeds. It’s the story of greed and desperation played out in the most cynical imaginable workplace. It’s everything toxic about the culture of sales and American macho business culture. It will make you uncomfortable, and it will leave you exhausted, but fascinated.
Key Lessons: The film expertly breaks down a number of high-pressure sales tactics, and demonstrates how cunning and manipulative people can be in order to get what they want.
Trading Places (1983)
Key Quote: “Yeah. You know, it occurs to me that the best way to hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people.”
This classic comedy from the 1980s tells the story of two men, played by Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, respectively a street hustler and a scion of a rich aristocratic family, who suddenly find themselves having traded places in life.
The film explores the ups and downs of being rich and poor in New York in the 1980s, with the two protagonists learning more, not only about the way the other half lives, but also about themselves, and their views of wealth, class, and money.
While the concept and much of the actual film is silly and ridiculous, it offers something of a more serious social commentary, culminating in the two men striking up an unlikely friendship.
Key Lessons: Money undeniably changes people, but it doesn’t have to change them for the worse. At the same time, losing money can be a chance for a person to re-examine who they really are and what they really value in life.
The Big Short (2015)
Key Quote: “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I’ll have my brother-in-law arrested.”
The Big Short could be the GOAT in terms of finance themed movies. As is true of any film that transcends one genre, The Big Short isn’t all one thing. It’s part mockumentary, part drama, part comedy. It’s Shakespearian in its tragic moments, and its use of a “Greek Chorus” style narrator/character (Ryan Gosling’s morally flexible banker Jared Vennett) who is important but not central to the story.
The film, again based on a book by Michael Lewis, is the largely true story (with fictional alternate characters), of the 2008 mortgage meltdown and financial crisis. It centers around a cast of characters who occupy different roles in the worlds of banking and hedge funds, who all share one thing in common: they know something isn’t right about the housing market, and they’d like to make money off of it. The film follows these investors and bankers through the years leading up to the financial crisis, as they, and in turn we, come to understand that the world banking system is in danger of collapsing at any moment.
Standout performances come from Steve Carrel and Christian Bale, who both play hedge fund managers who struggle with their emotional availability to their families, and with family trauma and loss. Just as Michael Lewis’s book often frames the stories of the mostly New York City based characters around their experiences of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, this film grounds its characters and their emotional arcs through their relationships with their mostly not-present families.
The film’s choices, particularly its decision to expose the audience to the actual workings of the financial system, and to carefully explain difficult finance concepts through comedic educational sketches starring celebrities, make it a special and unique experience. These choices also give the audience exposure to a huge range of players in the financial system, all the way from the average consumer, up to bank presidents. It’s not a coincidence that the film highlights that there are people every step of the way, and at every rung of that ladder, who have no idea what’s going on.
Key Lessons: An actual clear and useful description of how the financial crisis happened, who benefitted, who lost, and how it all happened.