The Wolf of Wall Street might have been the latest and flashiest blockbuster on the theme, but the silver screen has had a long-lasting love affair with films about money. Money is such a conspicuous theme in cinema that you can find classics about it in virtually every genre; action-packed bank heists, family inheritance-related dramas, thrilling mafia or wall street-greed epics, tear-jerking rags-to-riches tales and austere documentaries on everything from corporate scandals to modern consumerism. Money is a truly universal theme, and the reason for it couldn’t be simpler; all of us use it, all of us need it. Having money as a central theme also allows for a mixed bag of intriguing plots and captivating character developments – it is motif with endless narratives! We’ve selected some of the best films about money in every genre (and they are not all happening in Wall Street!)
The Wolf of Wall Street Scorsese masterfully tells us the story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo di Caprio), the New York Stockbroker who is involved in rampant corruption that eventually brings his firm down. Like earlier renowned Wall Street films, the film isn’t just about money’s corruptive power – but rather about the drives, pleasures, manipulations and deceptions society seems to run on. Differently from its earlier Wall Street counterparts though, is the excessive and carnivalesque qualities of the film, so somber in themes yet over the top in scenery, that it can only be classified as a black comedy.
When people think about films about greed and money, Wall Street immediately comes to mind – but the 1992 Glengarry Glen Ross is great reminder that avarice and the con salesman is everywhere. With a stellar cast which includes Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Jack Lemmon and Alec Baldwin the film depicts two days in the lives of four real estate salesmen who use all sorts of deceitful and dubious tactics to make sales. The motion picture of 1992 has lost none of its relevance, and the smart dialogues and the complexity of the characters command our attention.
There is something very moving about rags to riches tales, and Hollywood sure knows how to sentimentalize those. You can’t help but cheer on when you have a deserving and charismatic protagonist, who has been unjustly punished or disadvantaged in life, and who manages, after much struggle, to find his way to great wealth, and relief. Such is the case with the 2006 film starring Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness. The film tells the real story of entrepreneur’s Chris Gardner’s nearly one-year struggle being homeless with his five year son. It is a fortunate taxi ride, and the solving of a rubix cube, that lands Gardner an opportunity as a stockbroker, but he still has to outshine the other interns to guarantee the job. Even though the film employs money – and the lack of it – to guide us through strong emotions, it also speaks about resilience, brilliance and the importance of chance in life.
In an almost inverse fashion, A Good Year, is a story of a London stockbroker (Russell Crowe) who has his life turned upside down when has to travel to the south of France to receive an inheritance, a romantic old home and vineyard, from his late uncle. Initially intending to sell the land and squeeze every bit of profit he can from it, the Provence winds (and Marion Cotillard of course) start to change him. By the end of it, Russel Crowe has abandoned his high-status career and old life in London, but finishes of inestimably wealthier.
The Gripping Austrian-German film written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, The Counterfeiters, fictionalizes Operation Bernhard, a Nazi ploy during WWII to destabilize the UK economy by flooding it with forged notes. Filled with moral conundrums, and breath-holding tension, The Counterfeiters won the best foreign language film at 2007’s Oscars. Although it is a historical drama, it still resonates today showing us money’s potential destabilizing power in a single individual’s life to a whole country.
The Queen of Versailles gives us a glimpse of the real life of a wealthy American couple, David Siegel and his wife Jackie, owner of Westgate resorts, as they set out to build the largest house in the US, modelled on the Palace of Versailles. The couple run into financial difficulties following the 2008 recession, and begins a decadent riches-to-rags story. The documentary directed by Lauren Greenfield touches and moves you in unexpected ways, but also offers a raw and real portrayal of the so-called-American dream and the dark side of the free enterprise system. In an entirely different way, Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story tells the same story told by The Queen of Versailles – the impact of corporate dominance on the everyday lives of Americans, who in turn are seduced by capitalism. Moving from Middle America, to the halls of power in Washington, to the global financial epicenter in Manhattan, Moore asks with both humor and outrage, What is the price that America pays for its love of capitalism?