The financial world, in all its incarnations, makes for great cinema. Tragedy, comedy, ingenuity, catastrophe, and redemption are all present in the many finance movies that Hollywood has produced over the years.
While most of the finance movies portray financial professionals in a less than flattering light, the unbelievable stories of excess, risk-taking, and, of course, greed all make for compelling cinema. They are required viewing for anyone thinking of, or already working in, the business.
The 10 finance and Wall Street movies below, in no particular order, were chosen for their financial and stock market storylines plus their "plucked from the headlines" resonance.
- Learning about the world of finance through books and finance movies may help investors make better sense of financial products, services, and representatives.
- Wall Street movies can bring the financial landscape into focus for individuals looking for employment in the industry.
- A number of movies about finance that are both entertaining and educational have been made.
- The Big Short is based on the nonfiction best selling book about the 2007-2008 financial crisis by financial journalist Michael Lewis.
- Margin Call is about a large Wall Street investment banking firm during the early days of the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the firm's impending financial collapse.
10. The Big Short (2015)
Based on the nonfiction book "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine" by Michael Lewis, this movie follows a few savvy traders as they become aware—before anyone else—of the housing bubble that triggered the financial crisis in 2007-2008.
The movie is known for how it cleverly presented explanations of sophisticated financial instruments. For example, it has actress Selena Gomez explain what synthetic CDOs are at a poker table and actress Margot Robbie explain mortgage-backed bonds in a tub with champagne.
9. Barbarians at the Gate (1993)
This 1993 TV movie centers on the leveraged buyout (LBO) of RJR Nabisco, and it's based on the 1989 book of the same name by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. While the movie does take some creative liberties in portraying this real-life event, audiences may be shocked and amused at the incompetence and greed of Nabisco’s CEO F. Ross Johnson and the behind-the-scenes negotiations and skullduggery around this famous LBO.
8. American Psycho (2000)
In this violent and thought-provoking film adaptation of the critically acclaimed Bret Easton Ellis novel set in the backdrop of finance, Christian Bale plays a wealthy investment banker with a dark and deadly secret.
While there is actually little about finance in this movie, American Psycho does shed light on the surreal world inhabited by the financial industry's elite class, and the utter disconnect they have with reality.
7. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
An acclaimed big-screen adaptation of a David Mamet play, this infinitely quotable movie focuses on a team of downtrodden real estate salesmen whose morals have been utterly eroded after years of working for their unscrupulous company.
The movie showcases the greed and underhanded tactics that those in financial product sales positions may be exposed to. It underscores the unremitting pressure exerted on salespeople by their superiors who have sales goals to meet.
While the entire cast is top-notch, Alec Baldwin’s motivational speech steals the whole movie. It brings to light the best and worst aspects of working in the financial industry under enormous stress.
6. Rogue Trader (1999)
This movie tells the true story of Nick Leeson, a trader who single-handedly caused the insolvency of Barings Bank, the world’s second-oldest merchant bank.
A rising star on the Singapore trading floor, Leeson blew up as quickly as he rose, covering enormous losses from his superiors in carefully hidden accounts. His actions eventually lead to the mother of all failed trades with a short straddle position on the Nikkei, which ends up experiencing a large sigma move.
While the movie is entertaining, it's Leeson’s story itself that makes for a great lesson in risk management and financial oversight.
5. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)
Though the events contained in the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room occurred more than 20 years ago, they still have the power to shock. Based on the best-selling book of the same title, the film relies on a trove of video footage, congressional hearings testimony, and interviews with Enron executive Mike Muckleroy and whistle-blower Sherron Watkins, to argue that Enron, far from being a stellar energy corporation that lost its way, was actually a con game almost from the beginning.
In one of the more stunning revelations, the film lays out how the California energy crisis of 2001 was a sham created by Enron traders, who are overheard asking plant managers to "get a little creative" in closing plants for "repairs." Enron shut down up to 76% of California's energy industry, as it criminally manipulated the state's energy supply and relentlessly drove up the price of electricity.
4. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
This Martin Scorsese-helmed biopic chronicles the rise and fall of a famous stock scammer, Jordan Belfort. It features excellent performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill.
The Wolf of Wall Street is based on real-life events. This finance film looks at the infamous Stratton Oakmont, an over-the-counter brokerage firm, and a pump and dump scheme that helped launch the IPOs of several large public companies during the late 1980s and 1990s.
3. Boiler Room (2000)
While Barbarians at the Gate takes place in the glitz and glamor of a corporate boardroom, Boiler Room is set on the absolute lowest rung of the financial firm ladder: the pump and dump scheme.
The term refers to unscrupulous firms boosting the price of a security with misleading and sometimes false statements. They then sell their own holdings of the security, leaving investors with stock that's lost its value.
Boiler Room is a work of fiction but pump-and-dump firms are very real, as are the pain and suffering they inflict upon their victims.
This finance movie serves as a warning for those starting to invest in the stock market to stick to transparent, solid companies and to invest based on sound fundamentals. Viewers of Boiler Room won't soon forget the adage “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
2. Margin Call (2011)
Perhaps the most financially accurate movie on the list, Margin Call takes place over the span of 24 hours in the life of a Wall Street firm on the brink of disaster (modeled closely after some of the bulge bracket banks).
Margin Call does little to hide its contempt for the reckless risks taken by some of the largest banks in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. It highlights the trading of complex derivative instruments that investment banks themselves barely understood.
A poignant scene in the movie features two main characters talking about the catastrophe that is soon be unleashed upon, not just their firm but the whole, unsuspecting financial community of companies and investors as well, as a janitor stands between them, completely oblivious to what is going on.
1. Wall Street (1987)
One finance movie every professional should consider seeing is the Oliver Stone classic that got thousands of college graduates to utter the immortal phrase “Blue Horseshoe loves Anacott Steel” as they rushed to their Series 7 exams.
Originally crafted to show the excess and hedonism associated with finance, Wall Street still wields power as a recruiting tool for traders, brokers, analysts, and bankers nearly 30 years after it was made.
Although the Wall Street movie serves to warn us about the dangers of insider trading, let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to be Bud Fox or even Gordon Gekko and indulge a bit in our greedy side. After all, it was Gekko who famously said, “Greed is good.”
What Are Some Other Finance Movies?
Some other types of Wall Street movies you might try include Working Girl (1987), with Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, and Sigourney Weaver; Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), based on the book by Tom Wolfe and starring Bruce Willis, Tom Hanks, and Melanie Griffith; and Arbitrage (2012), starring Richard Gere.
Are There Any Movies About Bernie Madoff?
Madoff, the investment manager who ran a Ponzi scheme and stole over $64 billion from unsuspecting investors (including director Steven Spielberg and actor Kevin Bacon), died in jail in 2021. Theatrical and documentary films about him include:
- The Madoff Affair (2009) on PBS's show, Frontline
- Chasing Madoff (2011), the documentary based on the book by Harry Markopolos, who investigated Madoff for a decade and tried to get the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to take action against him
- Madoff (2016), the TV mini-series based on the book by Ben Robbins called The Madoff Chronicles
- The Wizard of Lies (2017), an HBO film about Madoff starring Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer
Any Movies Made About Bitcoin?
Yes—though there are currently more documentaries than movies. Check out Crypto (2019), a crime thriller about money laundering involving crypto. And stay tuned for upcoming FTX projects, starting with one based on the upcoming book on Sam Blankman-Fried by Michael Lewis (author of "The Big Short" and "Moneyball").
The Bottom Line
These movies are a must-see for any prospective financial pro. Even if you aren’t thinking of a career in the field, these films can provide a bit of insight into the wild and sometimes absurd world of finance.
As the saying goes, “truth is stranger than fiction,” and as events like the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the fall of Enron, and the Madoff scandal show, real life can be far more unbelievable than any tale Hollywood can craft.