In a beautifully played scene in Martin Scorsese’s rambunctious The Wolf of Wall Street, broker-cum-conman Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) entertains canny FBI agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) on his yacht. Initially ingratiating, Belfort gradually transforms into a cocaine-fortified embodiment of arrogance. When Denham refuses a bribe, the scene explodes in a shower of Belfort’s bile, as he flings dollar bills at the FBI man, yelling: “Do you know what I call these? Fun coupons!” Belfort is betraying the full extent of his megalomania, but the scene is also crucial because it’s the first time we see him not getting his own way. Money, it seems, can’t buy everything.
Since the global financial crisis of 2008, a host of fiction films (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Margin Call, Arbitrage) and documentaries (Capitalism: A Love Story, Inside Job) have offered informative and mostly moralistic takes on finance. Although set in the 1980s and 1990s, The Wolf of Wall Street – pitched somewhere between the final third of Scorsese’s own GoodFellas (1990), Oliver Stone’s 1987 Wall Street (“Greed is good!”) and Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s horrifying satire American Psycho (2000) – eschews such caution in favour of a rollicking string of X-rated set pieces that dare us to be amused and entertained.
It’s struck a nerve, with opinion pieces criticising it for glamourising greed. Yet The Wolf of Wall Street is too conspicuously, deliciously over-the-top in style and content for this argument to convince, and it’s hard to debate that Scorsese has crafted one of the great films about wealth’s corrosive, addictive effects – psychological and corporeal – and the avaricious underbelly of the American Dream.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
However, films about money needn’t necessarily be about flagrant greed, even if one of the earliest – Erich von Stroheim’s epic Greed (1924) – was just that. While money is usually desired by characters in films, on rare occasions – as in the case of Brewster’s Millions (which has been made a remarkable 10 times, thrice in India) – they’re hell-bent on getting rid of it as quickly as possible.
Here, then, we tot up 10 more great – and diverse – films about money.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
Director Frank Capra
Frank Capra won his second Oscar for best director for this light-hearted, fabulously entertaining comedy set during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It follows the fortunes of straightforward Vermont businessman Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), who inherits $20m after his wealthy uncle dies in a car crash. Initially content to sit on his fortune, he winds up among the city slickers and muckrakers of New York, and develops a benevolent spirit, ultimately deciding to provide fully equipped 10-acre farms free to thousands of homeless families if they will work the land for several years.
With its Manichean social observation and deliberately constructed plot, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town finds Capra on his corniest form, but it’s no less enjoyable for that. Moreover, it provides a fascinating window into how American cinema responded to the trauma of the Depression: Deeds’ actions are the essence of Rooseveltian New Deal politics. Capra made two more ‘New Deal’-themed pictures – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941) – and the film was later remade in 2000, to predictably diminishing returns, with Adam Sandler in the lead role.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Director Billy Wilder
“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for the money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?” – so runs Walter Neff’s (Fred MacMurray) rueful confession into a dictaphone in Billy Wilder’s quintessential 40s film noir.
Neff is an average Joe who hooks up with the icy, beautiful Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), and helps her to con her rich, distant husband into signing a life insurance policy (with bonus double indemnity clause) that he never wanted. Together they plan to murder him and collect the takings. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned, and the pleasure comes in watching the whole thing unravel. Post-Depression cynicism was never more compelling.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
Director Stanley Kramer
The original cut of Stanley Kramer’s deliriously entertaining crime caper came in at 210 minutes, and even though the final version was 50 minutes shorter, it’s hard to think of another film of its type so huge in scale. It begins during a massive traffic jam caused by reckless driver Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante) who, before dying, cryptically tells the assembled drivers that he’s buried $350,000 in stolen cash, “under the Big W”. This kicks off a madcap, multi-stranded chase for the loot, featuring a star-stuffed cast including the likes of Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Peter Falk, Phil Silvers, Zasu Pitts, and even Britain’s own gap-toothed wonder, Terry-Thomas.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was a box-office success, but ironically for a film about the desperate pursuit of cash, it only earned a profit of $1.25 million as the costs involved in making it were so high.
Fox and His Friends (1975)
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cruelty, domination and role-playing are familiar traits in the films of German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but when finance was included as a key element in his bleak mid-70s masterpiece, things got really dark.
Fassbinder himself stars as a cocksure carny who finds himself alone after his boss (and lover) is carted away by the cops in the opening scene. But, seemingly, through sheer force of will, he wins big in the lottery and falls in with a group a wealthy homosexual aesthetes. From here he begins a torrid affair with the “posh, daft” Eugen (Peter Chatel), and soon loses his grip on both his sanity and his money. From the confounding ease with which Fox wins the lottery, to the inevitability of his downfall, the film retains the lucid clarity of a nightmarish fable. It registers as an acrid satire on the impossibility of Darwinian social engineering, not to mention a chilling affirmation that money can’t buy happiness.
Director Robert Bresson
It was somehow appropriate for the pragmatic master of visual and narrative economy, Robert Bresson, to finish his career with this sobering and devastatingly simple drama about the corrosive effects of money – or lack thereof – on the human spirit.
Based on a section of Leo Tolstoy’s novella ‘The Forged Coupon’, it unravels the story of fresh-faced young family man Yvon (Christian Patey), who spirals into a socio-economic nightmare not of his own making when he comes into possession of a forged 500-franc note, being picked up by the cops when he unwittingly tries to spend it. L’Argent is a frighteningly stark work which suggests that our fate lies anywhere but in our own hands.
Trading Places (1983)
Director John Landis
In John Landis’s hilarious yet withering proto-critique of the “one percent”, Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche are on lip-smackingly dastardly form as the commodity trading Duke Brothers who, in a moment of boredom, wager a paltry $1 on whether they can successfully take a rough-hewn conman from the street (Eddie Murphy) and exchange him with their pompous managing director (Dan Aykroyd).
One of the great films about the ruthlessness of the finance industry, this update of The Prince and the Pauper also happens to catch an electrifying Murphy in the comic form of his life, while Aykroyd has never been better than his hapless, plummy Winthorpe, the golden-boy banker turned suicidal flop. Serial self-referentialist John Landis would offer another crowd-pleasing glimpse of the Duke Brothers – as homeless panhandlers – in Coming to America (1988).
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Director James Foley
“You see this watch?”, harrumphs Alec Baldwin’s shit-kicking real estate exec to lowly, salesman Dave Moss (Ed Harris) in the opening moments of James Foley’s version of David Mamet’s 1984 stage play. “This watch cost more than your car!”
And so begins a gruelling, intricately observed peek into the sweat-stained, baggy-eyed, coffee-breathed lives of a group of four desperate real estate salesmen, who must trample over each other’s humdrum dreams to stay afloat: this isn’t greed, buddy, it’s survival. With a superb cast (Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey) breathing life into Mamet’s salty, endlessly quotable Chicagoan dialogue, Glengarry Glen Ross is entirely convincing, surpassing even Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman for its pitiless expose of the unglamorous intersection between threatened masculinity and the American Dream.
Director Djibril Diop Mambéty
It falls somewhere between tragedy and travesty that the brilliant Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty made only two feature-length films before his untimely death at the age of 52 in 1999. His first, Touki-Bouki (1973), was a dizzying collage of audio-visual dissonance, proto-punk spirit and anti-colonial sentiment, and his last, Hyenas, was equally powerful for different reasons.
Hyenas tells the story of Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), an ageing, wealthy and magisterial woman who descends upon her home village. The embittered Ramatou – “as rich as the World Bank” – will bestow fortune upon the town in exchange for the murder of Dramaan Drameh (Mansour Diouf), a hapless local shopkeeper who abandoned her after a love affair and her illegitimate pregnancy when she was 16. Simultaneously unpredictable, unsettling and wickedly funny, this satire of small-minded village materialism operates in a poetically heightened – if still relatably realistic – dimension, until the mysterious, magical denouement undoes everything we thought we knew.
The Counterfeiters (2006)
Director Stefan Ruzowitzky
In this gripping drama, money is both plot device and the purest symbol of life and death. Stefan Ruzowitzky’s film – which won the best foreign-language film Oscar in 2008 – fictionalises Operation Bernhard, a secret plan by Nazi Germany during World War Two to destabilise the United Kingdom by flooding its economy with forged Bank of England pound notes.
The central character is bohemian Jewish counterfeiter Salomon ‘Sally’ Sorowitsch (a brilliantly inscrutable Karl Markovics), who is coerced into assisting the operation at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Riven with knotty moral conundrums and scenes of almost unbearable tension, The Counterfeiters is a superbly ambiguous work that commendably avoids easy answers.
The Queen of Versailles (2012)
Director Lauren Greenfield
If Jackie and David Siegel didn’t exist, you’d have to make them up. This excellent documentary follows the larger-than-life billionaire husband and wife team – the owners of Westgate Resorts – as they build their Versailles house (modelled, of course, on the Versailles palace in France), the largest and most expensive single-family house in the United States. But the bubble bursts, the US economy rapidly declines, and the pair have to adjust to a new way of life that isn’t so friendly to their spendthrift antics.
Synthesising the influential, post-millennial vibe of reality TV with a canny documentarian’s observational and storytelling skills, Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles is every inch “the single best film on The Great Recession”, as Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein has observed, provoking an uncomfortable mixture of horrified sympathy and untrammelled schadenfreude.