Want to see one of the best true-crime flicks ever made? Go see Inside Job, a documentary about the financiers who turned our economy into a giant Ponzi scheme — enabled by a posse of politicians, regulators and academics beholden to Wall Street.
You might think you know this story, having lived through the financial crisis over the last two years. But filmmaker Charles Ferguson's masterpiece of cinema verite starkly connects the dots in a way that facilitates a full understanding of what happened, how it happened and who was responsible. You'll walk away informed and furious.
Ferguson, with precise narration by Matt Damon, takes you through the whole sordid mess, from the predatory mortgage lenders who drove up housing prices, to the Wall Street bankers who generated obscene bonuses for themselves by selling ticking-time-bomb mortgage-backed securities and derivatives, to the bought-off credit rating agencies, and finally to the politicians and government "regulators" who dismantled Depression-era limits on banks at the behest of their Wall Street pals, allowing the perfect crime to happen.
A perfect crime because Wall Street bankers generated huge paydays for themselves by getting their political water carriers to rewrite the rules, making it no longer illegal to rob a bank — as long as you did so from behind a desk. A quintessential inside job.
In surprisingly entertaining fashion, Ferguson details how Wall Street's smugly arrogant men (and they are virtually all men) took a chainsaw to productive America — which actually built things — and erected in its place Casino America, where the house — their personal house — always wins. The movie briskly unmasks the villains: Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein, Countrywide's Angelo Mozilo, Lehman Brothers' Richard Fuld, Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, Hank Paulson and host of other key players. By the time their mayhem runs its course, there's plenty of blood on the floor, none of it theirs.
That's the twist in this crime drama. No one goes to jail. Some, such as Mozilo, have had to pay fines to the SEC, but others have so far emerged unscathed. It's reminiscent of the Freddy Krueger franchise where the antagonist lives to tee up the sequel. Those who lorded over vast financial frauds have taken their ill-gotten millions back to their huge estates in the Hamptons — which the film cameras fly over — until their next opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of a stable American economy.
There is even sex. A former madam blithely describes Wall Street's culture of debauchery, where traders and bank executives, like a bunch of frat boys, use their wealth to buy high-priced cars and women. Their cheating ways presumably were not limited to defrauding investors.
Since Ferguson couldn't get financial big-wigs to sit for interviews, he includes snippets of congressional hearings. One is of officials at the three biggest credit rating agencies — which got huge fees to give top AAA ratings to securitized junk loans — insisting that no one should have relied on their judgment in rating the security of an investment. It was only an "opinion," they declare. Yeah, an opinion that legally enabled pension funds to gamble with the retirements of firefighters and garbage collectors.
Another snippet shows that jaw-dropping exchange between Sen. Carl Levin and mortgage traders at Goldman Sachs from a hearing in April, where Levin quotes a Goldman internal e-mail that refers to an investment named Timberwolf as "one s--tty deal," even as it was being foisted on unsuspecting buyers as a top sales priority for the firm.
Daniel Sparks, the former head of Goldman's mortgage department and the recipient of the memo, responds to Levin with incoherent dissembling. When the lineup of Goldman traders is pressed about whether they felt an obligation to act in the best interest of their clients, none would agree.
Perhaps the only true thing they ever said.
When the credits rolled, the audience applauded. Ferguson has served up a tour de fraud that everyone who cares about how our economy was hijacked by a den of thieves should see this holiday season.