The financial world can be daunting for the uninitiated. Pick up a business paper or switch on the news and you’ll read and hear terms like short-selling, margin trading, leveraged buyouts, bulls and bears, market capitalisation, and a host of other terms.
If you don’t work in finance, its related industries, or did not study business in school, you will likely find yourself in for a steep learning curve. It’s a minefield for ordinary folks who simply want to invest their hard-earned money beyond an ordinary savings account.
But like it or not, knowledge is the first step to managing your money, regardless of whether you just want to just try the stock market, prepare for retirement or meet other financial goals.
Movies may seem like an unexpected avenue to learn more about finance, but there’s no better way to be entertained and educated in just two hours. Here, we’ve put together a list of the top 10 films that you can watch to learn more about the finance world.
You’ll find out that the financial world can be greedy and glamorous, exciting yet extremely affecting. You’ll learn about why markets can collapse overnight, how the quest for profits can overshadow ethics and morals, and perhaps pick up a lesson or two as you consider your steps into the heart of capitalism.
Movies are arranged in order of when they were launched.
#1 Wall Street, 1987 (IMDB Rating: 7.4)
If there is one classic movie to watch, it is this. It’s a tale of a young, ambitious stockbroker Bud Fox (played by Charlie Sheen) who jumps at the chance to work with Gordon Gekko, an extremely wealthy and successful financier who engages in shady tactics in his quest to make money.
Michael Douglas’s Academy Award–winning performance as Gekko was symbolic of Wall Street’s toxic culture of greed and corruption. While the downfall of the movie’s villain became a cautionary tale (spoiler alert: Gekko ends up in jail), fast forward to the 21st century and it becomes clear that its message is still ever so relevant today.
What we learned: Greed may make you rich, but watch out for the consequences.
#2 Rogue Trader, 1999 (IMDB Rating: 6.4)
The Singapore connection makes this movie relevant to us. The movie stars Ewan McGregor as derivatives broker Nick Leeson who singlehandedly bankrupted Barings Bank. Based upon his personal account of events, it traces his time working for the bank in Singapore where he eventually lost about £827 million (or $1.4 billion) in unauthorised trades. His attempts to cover up his losses eventually led to his arrest and the collapse of the 233-year-old bank.
What we learned: Derivatives are high-risk financial instruments that can potentially result in huge losses. It’s not for the faint-of-heart so it’s important to acquire good knowledge of markets and trading first. As for Leeson himself, he says in an interview in Expat Living Singapore: “…everyone makes mistakes but if you do make a mistake, never ever try to hide it.”
#3 Money No Enough, 1998 (IMDB Rating: 6.2)
The iconic comedy Money No Enough was a game-changer for the local film industry. Not only did it fill theatres for months and became one of the highest-grossing Singaporean films, it resonated with locals with relatable social and financial scenarios (including the use of Hokkien dialect). It stars Jack Neo, Henry Thia and Mark Lee who go through a host of financial difficulties before rising to the challenge and turning their lives around.
What we learned: Money is never enough but it’s how you use and budget it that matters. And NEVER borrow from loan sharks.
#4 Boiler Room, 2000 (IMDB Rating: 7.0)
The products and tactics may be different 20 years ago, but scam calls are ultimately one and the same – to fleece you of your money. This movie gives a glimpse into the workings of small brokerage firm where ambitious high-pressure upstarts cheat ordinary folks of their hard-earned money. Giovanni Ribisi plays Seth Davis who joins the firm in hopes of making money and gaining respect from his father. However, all is not what it seems, as he soon realises preying on unassuming investors is not what he signed up for.
What we learned: Don’t let the fear of missing out (FOMO) get to you. Aggressive sales tactics are just that – to get you to part with your cash. Take a breather and do your research before investing in any products.
#5 The Pursuit of Happyness, 2006 (IMDB Rating: 8.0)
This movie is an inspiring one to watch in 2020. Unlike other movies featuring men in power suits making deals, this is more about overcoming the odds, being resilient and achieving success if you put your mind to it. Based on a true story, Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a homeless single father and salesman who has to work while looking after his young son. He manages to get an unpaid internship position at a brokerage firm which eventually became a paid position as a result of his skills, personality and hard work.
What we learned: Life is tough, and sometimes things can look hopeless. But with hard work and perseverance, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.
#6 Confessions of a Shopaholic, 2009 (IMDB Rating: 5.9)
It might be entertaining fluff and chock-full of rom-com clichés, but there are also plenty of teachable moments in this movie, including how not to go shopping. Rebecca Bloomwood (played by Isla Fisher) absolutely loves to shop and takes retail therapy to a whole new level. Problem is, she has maxed out her 12 credit cards, her wardrobe is literally bursting, and a debt collector is hot on her heels to get her to pay her debt.
What we learned: Beware of credit card debt- they are not a free pass to unbridled shopping. Having healthy financial habits is key to achieving your financial and life goals. Yes, one of those goals can include that designer bag you’ve been eyeing, provided you budget and save properly.
#7 Margin Call, 2011 (IMDB Rating: 7.1)
This movie is a tantalising look at what may have taken place at the beginning of the 2007 financial crisis. Most of it takes place over one long night as the star-studded ensemble cast, including Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons and Demi Moore, try to save the dangerously-overleveraged investment bank.
Along the way, a morally questionable solution is found. Spacey’s character mulls over it but decides to stay the course because he “needs the money”. Between the urgent phone calls, terse discussions and business pep talks (all still in sharp suits, mind you), it’s a compelling study of corporate machinery and greed at the expense of the 99 per cent.
What we learned: It’s a house of cards, and everyone who lives there is expendable.
#8 The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013 (IMDB Rating: 8.2)
Think of it as a light-hearted Wall Street-meets-Boiler Room, albeit a true story. It’s another cautionary tale made more provocative with sex, drugs and money. With director Martin at the helm, it’s a madcap romp through the 1980s and 90s featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as stockbroker Jordan Belfort who lies and cheats (read: securities fraud and money laundering) his way to the top.
What we learned: It’s ok to aspire to be rich, as long as you don’t break the law.
#9 The Big Short, 2015 (IMDB Rating: 7.8)
If you want to learn about subprime mortgages and how it led to the US housing crisis but without eye-watering textbook explanations, The Big Short is a good way to start.
Based on the book of the same name, it follows several fund managers as they predict and profit from its collapse. It has a star-studded cast, and like a black comedy, uses humour, popular culture references and surprising cameos to explain to viewers complex financial instruments such as “synthetic collateralised debt obligations”. (Even hedge fund manager Mark Baum played by Steve Carell had trouble wrapping his head around this.) It’s entertaining but uncomfortable to watch on hindsight, knowing that investors lost billions during the crisis.
What we learned: Why the U.S. housing bubble burst and the complicated tools used to package such debt.
#10 Money (Korean), 2019 (IMDB Rating: 5.9)
A modern take on market manipulation, this Korean film is like the Asian version of Wall Street. It follows the rise of young stockbroker Jo Il-hyun (played by Ryu Jun-yeol) who becomes wealthy through unscrupulous means. Its tale of white-collar crime and financial intrigue makes it a gripping story, and we get an insight into corporate hierarchy and Korean workplace culture.
What we learned: There are no short-cuts to success. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.