The financial world, in all its incarnations, makes for great cinema. Tragedy, comedy, ingenuity, catastrophe, and redemption are all present in the many finance films that Hollywood has produced over the years. While most of the movies portray financial professionals in a less than flattering light, the unbelievable stories of excess, risk-taking, and of course greed make for compelling cinema and are required viewing for anyone thinking of or already working in the biz.
10. The Big Short
Based on the nonfiction book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, this movie follows a few savvy X as they become aware of the housing bubble that triggered the financial crisis in 2007-2008, before anyone else. It's known for its clever way to break down sophisticated financial instruments by, for example, having Selena Gomez explain what synthetic CDOs are at a poker table, or having Margot Robbie explain mortgage-backed bonds in a tub with champagne.
9. Barbarians at the Gates
A largely forgotten 1993 TV movie centered on the leveraged buyout (LBO) of RJR Nabisco. While the movie does take some creative liberties in portraying this real-life event, audiences will 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
A violent and thought-provoking thriller set in the backdrop of finance, Christian Bale plays a wealthy investment banker with a dark secret. While there is very little actual finance in this movie, American Psycho does shed light on the surreal world inhabited by finance’s elite class, and the utter disconnect they have among themselves and with reality.
7. Glengarry Glen Ross
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. This movie showcases the greed and underhanded tactics that sales positions may be exposed to, as well as the pressure exerted on salespeople by their superiors. While the entire cast is top notch, Alec Baldwin’s “motivational speech” steals the whole movie, and brings to light the absolute best and worst faces of working under enormous pressure.
6. Rogue Trader
This movie tells the 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, hiding enormous losses from his superiors in carefully hidden accounts, eventually leading to the mother of all failed trades on a short straddle position on the Nikkei, which ends up experiencing a large sigma move. While the movie itself is decently entertaining, Leeson’s story makes for a great lesson in risk management and financial oversight.
5. Trading Places
This modern-day take on The Prince and Pauper features Eddie Murphy as a streetwise con artist who gets tricked into becoming the manager of a commodities trading firm, while unwittingly replacing his successor, a blue-blooded executive played by Dan Aykroyd. Although actual trading takes a backseat to the characters transitioning into their new circumstances, the final 15 minutes of the movie has a very accurate depiction of a frenzied trading session in the orange juice futures pits. Without revealing the details, this scene alone is worth the price of admission, but the supporting cast, the 80s nostalgia, and great acting from the leads make this a must-watch.
4. The Wolf of Wall Street
If you haven’t seen this Scorsese-helmed biopic chronicling the rise and fall of a famous stock scammer, Jordan Belfort, then you are missing out on some of the best performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill’s careers. Just like Barbarians' pump and dump, The Wolf of Wall Street is based on real-life events (though again with a large parsing of dramatics), around the infamous Stratton Oakmont, an over-the-counter brokerage firm, and a pump and dump scheme that helped IPO several large public companies during the late 80s and 90s.
3. Boiler Room
While Barbarians at the Gates takes place in the glitz and glamor of a corporate boardroom, Boiler Room is set in the absolute lowest rung of the financial ladder: the pump and dump scheme. While Boiler Room is a work of fiction, pump and dump firms are very real, as are the pain and suffering they inflict upon their victims. Boiler Room serves as a warning for those starting to invest in the stock market, to stick to transparent, solid companies based on sound fundamentals, and to always follow the adage: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
2. Margin Call
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 large bulge brackets). Margin Call does little to hide its contempt for the reckless risk-taking by some of the largest banks in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, such as trading complex derivative instruments they themselves barely understood. An incredibly poignant scene in the movie features two main characters talking among themselves about the impending catastrophe that will soon be unleashed upon their bank and the unsuspecting financial landscape, while a janitor stands between them, completely oblivious to what is going on.
1. Wall Street
Surprise, surprise: the number one finance movie every professional must see 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 7s. Originally crafted to show the excess and hedonism associated with finance, Wall Street still wields incredible power as a recruiting tool for traders, brokers, analysts, and bankers nearly 30 years after it was made. Though the 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 (legitimately, of course) and indulge a bit in our greedy side; after all, as Gekko would say, “Greed is good.”
The Bottom Line
These movies are a must-watch for any prospective financial pro, but 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. However, as the saying goes, “truth is stranger than fiction,” and as events like the 2008 recession, the fall of Enron and the Madoff scandal have shown, real life can be far more unbelievable than any tale Hollywood can craft.