Fast deals. Fancy cars. Wads of cash. Rich brokers. Unscrupulous executives. What do these things have in common? They're often found in some of the biggest blockbuster hits about the financial industry. Hollywood has a long history of sensationalizing the industry and the professionals who take part in it. If you're not convinced, watch films like "Wall Street" and "The Wolf of Wall Street."

While these types of movies definitely offer high entertainment value, they don't necessarily provide an accurate depiction of what it's really like to be a professional in the world of finance. Instead, they tend to provide a skewed view of the financial sector. But there are big-screen movies that actually try to show how life really is for financial professionals and their clients. Here, we take a more realistic approach that writers and directors explore through documentary film. For current finance professionals looking to increase their skills, or for aspiring professionals looking to break into the industry, finance documentaries are a great way to gain insight and knowledge. The following is a list of 10 of the most important documentaries that should be on your must-watch list.

Key Takeaways

  • Financial professionals should always educate themselves and learn from others.
  • Although many people choose to go to a seminar or read a book, it may be easier to just watch a film.
  • Hollywood films don't always present an accurate picture of reality—so take what you see with a grain of salt.

1. "Inside Job" (2010)

"Inside Job" is one of the most well-done and informative documentaries on the 2008 housing and banking financial crisis. The movie won the 2010 Oscar for the best documentary picture.

Broken down into five parts, the film takes the viewer through the U.S. policy changes and banking practices that led to the global financial crisis. It begins by highlighting how the economy was set up to fail, how the bubble grew between 2001 and 2007, how the crisis struck in 2008, who was accountable for the crisis, before wrapping up the aftermath.

This is one of the most important documentaries for finance professionals. Through an understanding of the history of one of the largest financial crises, it's possible to learn from past mistakes to foresee when something like this can happen again and prevent it from happening. 

2. "Trader" (1987)

The film "Trader" follows trader Paul Tudor Jones, showing him at his best as well as his worst. Jones, a hedge fund manager, accurately predicted the 1987 economic downturn based on both intuition and Elliott Wave graphs.

While Jones is extremely intelligent, he's also extremely superstitious. This highlights the fact that many people within the investment finance industry rely on luck just as much as they do on skill and analytics. Sometimes it takes guts along with analysis to make the correct investment decision.

The documentary also follows Jones as he donates his time and money to help New York City children graduate from high school. This underscores the importance of giving back to the community, rather than succumbing to greed.

3. "25 Million Pounds" (1996)

Watch "25 Million Pounds" to learn the true story of Nick Leeson, a British trader who started his career as a Morgan Stanley clerk and ended breaking the law as a rogue trader who brought down Barings, an old British bank. This bank held money for the high-powered elite, including the Queen herself. The true story was so compelling that it also inspired the film "Rogue Trader," which starred Ewan McGregor.

Through interviews with Leeson in the early 1990s, "25 Million Pounds" allows finance professionals a chance to peer into the mind of someone who dealt with dishonest traders and even committed fraud himself. The interviews highlight Leeson's relationship with the trader Kweku Adoboli, who managed to take over $2 billion from UBS.

4. "Breaking the Bank" (2009)

PBS has a series of documentaries produced under the Frontline banner including "Breaking the Bank." Viewers are able to get an understanding of the American banking crisis that led to nearly $500 billion in Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds distributed to American banks because of their reckless management. These funds injected cash into the American banking system, ensuring that none of the largest institutions would fail.

While some argue that the bailout that saved the large American banks from collapsing was necessary, others counter, saying the program subverted free enterprise and capitalism. Understanding the intricacies of the American banking crisis gives finance professionals a better understanding of the interwoven economy and how the free market reacts to a crisis.

5. "The Ascent of Money" (2008)

Finance professionals interested in the complete financial history of the world should definitely put "The Ascent of Money" on their list of documentaries to watch. Historian Niall Ferguson takes viewers through a complete history of the financial world, from the ancient city of Babylon all the way to the 2008 global financial crisis.

Understanding the deep financial history of the world gives finance professionals a greater perspective and understanding of how the finance world operates. "The Ascent of Money" tries to accomplish this by highlighting milestones such as the Babylonian futures contracts and Francisco Pizarro's exploitation of the Cerro Rico de Potosí—a mine that yielded silver for Europe.

Financial documentaries like the ones on this list help give aspiring and current professionals perspective and a better understanding of finances and the economy.

6. "Commanding Heights" (2002)

"Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy" provides a thorough understanding of the world economy for financial professionals. This film highlights the birth of globalization. Similar to the deep history highlighted in the previous film, this documentary delves deeper into the beginning of globalization by first taking the viewer into Russia and behind the Iron Curtain.

From there, "Commanding Heights" presses on to highlight events such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank's response to the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The film continues its journey through the end of the 20th century when deregulation became prevalent.

7. "Life and Debt"

"Life and Debt" is a documentary film that highlights how indebtedness makes a bad situation worse for small countries. Through an understanding of the European Union's rescue of floundering countries such as Greece and Portugal, the film gives finance professionals food for thought about the benefits and drawbacks of bailing out entire countries through debt lending. "Life and Debt" also takes a closer look at the effects of national indebtedness and IMF policy on ordinary citizens and local businesses.

8. Other Frontline Documentaries

Similar to "Inside Job" and Frontline's "Breaking the Bank," these documentaries help highlight the 2008 financial crisis, the largest recession since the Great Depression. "Inside Job" does a great job of giving a high-level overview of the 2008 crisis while also providing entertainment value, but these PBS documentaries really dig into the causes and effects.

9. "The Warning" (2009)

For finance professionals, "The Warning" shows that it's possible to foresee a financial crisis and work to keep it from happening. This film takes a look at the 2008 financial crisis, but it does so from a different angle. It picks up the story of Brooksley Born, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), who urged for tighter regulation that could have mitigated the crisis.

10. "Freakonomics: The Movie" (2010)

While "Freakonomics" isn't strictly a movie about the financial industry itself, it brings to light a lot of interesting theories about why people behave the way they do. By taking seemingly random data points, the documentary shows how causality and correlation can be made between the two. For finance professionals, it's extremely important to understand what drives people.