Accountants usually only make the headlines or have their stories told on the big screen for the misdeeds in which they have played a part.
These four films bring to light some of the darkest examples of greed and corruption and show how important ethics are to maintaining a financial system that is constantly hanging in the balance.
1. In Debt We Trust: America Before the Bubble Bursts
Debt has become a way of life for Americans, and this documentary is a wake-up call to a younger generation that cannot stop living life in the red. The film digs deep into the economic and political policies responsible for transforming the U.S. economy from relying on manufacturing into one dependent on consumerism and debt.
At the time of the film's release in 2006, it was estimated that Americans owed over $10 trillion of consumer debt. In Debt We Trust exposes and explains a system operating on borrowed money and borrowed time, and tells us that it is only a matter of time before the system completely collapses. The film takes a critical look at the long-term effects of abusing debt, such as a larger portion of the nation's wealth shifting to the mega-rich.
2. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Arguably the most shocking display of modern corporate corruption, the scandal leading to the fall of the Enron Corporation is the subject of the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. The filmmakers assembled a wealth of video footage from congressional hearing testimony and features candid interviews with Enron executive Mike Muckleroy and Sherron Watkins, who blew the whistle on the company’s many illegal schemes.
The stories of what Enron traders were doing behind the scenes to keep their jobs and make money at any cost are truly revolting. The most shocking material in the film involves the fact that Enron cynically and knowingly created the phony California energy crisis. There was never a shortage of power in California.
Using tape recordings of Enron traders on the phone with managers of California power plants, the film plays tapes of them asking the managers to "get a little creative" in shutting down plants for "repairs." Enron shut down between 30 and 50% of California's energy industry a great deal of the time – up to 76% at one point – as the company drove the price of electricity nine times higher.
Bernie Madoff may have grabbed most of the headlines for his giant Ponzi scheme, but Marc Dreier's massive fraud – netting $380 million from the hedge funds of New York's most prominent investors – makes quite an entertaining film. Through interviews with Dreier in his Manhattan penthouse, while he was under house arrest, we learn about his elaborate scheme in great detail.
Dreier headed a 250-person law firm, yet he was the only person with knowledge of the financial details of the company's deals. Through forgeries and impersonations, Dreier swindled some of Manhattan's most experienced investors, but he was done in by a savvy receptionist who blew the whistle on him.
4. The Shawshank Redemption
It is not an accident you can find The Shawshank Redemption showing on cable just about every day of the year – it is a great movie. The movie's hero, Andy Dufresne, is not just another accountant in prison. He proves that knowing obscure tax loopholes can actually save your life and maybe even help you escape from prison.
After being wrongfully sentenced to life in prison for murdering his wife and her lover, Andy learns to get extra protection from the prison guards by preparing their tax returns. After his eventual escape from the Shawshank prison, he implicates the corrupt warden for years of illegal bookkeeping.