Can an industry so steeped in wealth have anything meaningful to say about money? It’s said that people who have money never have to talk about it, and to an extent this seems to hold true for Hollywood.
It goes without saying that in Hollywood, money is everywhere. At the 2016 Oscar ceremony, the top nominees received gift bags reportedly worth $232,000. The budget for the average blockbuster is mind-boggling: this year’s Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice cost $250 million to make. (To put that in perspective, the Cook Islands have an annual GDP of around the same amount.) The annual global box office revenue of the US film industry alone is estimated at around $38.3 billion. (That’s more than it would purportedly cost to end global hunger.)
Can an industry so steeped in wealth have anything meaningful to say about money? It’s said that people who have money never have to talk about it, and to an extent this seems to hold true for Hollywood. It’s rare to find films which explicitly focus on money. Often financial security, or lack thereof, is simply there in the background: characters in glossy romantic comedies have aspirational jobs and seem to live in impossibly upmarket New York apartments, while the heroes of gritty blue-collar dramas must fight to rise above their circumstances.
‘The world is your oyster. It’s up to you to find the pearls.’ - The Pursuit of Happyness
Of course, a likeable hero can’t be motivated by money. Even in a rags-to-riches story the riches will be an incidental by-product of the protagonist’s quest to be true to themselves, a welcome bonus alongside professional success and romantic or familial fulfilment.
In The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), one of the most unashamed adverts for the American Dream in the past decade, Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a man who puts everything on the line in his quest to become a stockbroker. After some gruelling challenges, Chris’s hard work, tenacity and talent pay off, quite literally. The film’s message is difficult to swallow: on the one hand we root for Chris’s relationship with his young son, and want him to fulfil his obvious potential. But it’s also troubling that the ‘pearl’ Chris is willing to risk everything for – in contrast to the pearl in Jesus’s parable (Matthew 13:45–46) – isn’t spiritual riches, but a lucrative job.
Ten years on, it’s harder to imagine a stockbroker as a cinematic hero. In the wake of the financial crash there has been a general sense of soul-searching about our culture’s relationship with money. This has resulted in an interesting crop of films focusing on the financial system itself. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is one controversial example, sparking debate about its take on its amoral main character, real-life figure Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Is the film itself amoral in its no-holds-barred depiction of corruption and excess? Director Martin Scorsese defended his work – perhaps, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, he intended his audience to be troubled by the ‘grievous evil’ that greed can wreak in the world: ‘wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners, or wealth lost through some misfortune…’ (5:13–14).
‘There have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world.’ - Margin Call
Margin Call (2011) provides a more sober analysis of financial misdealing, telling another true story as it catalogues the fateful 24 hours in which banking insiders realised the 2008 crash was imminent. The film creates a cumulative feeling of horror as the characters slowly realise their consequences have caught up with them. ‘Greed isn’t merely good here, it’s God,’ observed Telegraph critic Robbie Collin, ‘and he’s about to smite his acolytes with blazing Old Testament relish.’ With this judgement day upon them, who will try to pass the buck, and who will take responsibility? As viewers, we’re faced with an uncomfortable reminder that all of us, in ways both large and small, ‘ claim to be without sin’ and so ‘deceive ourselves’ (1 John 1:8).
Covering the same events from a rather different angle is 2016 Best Picture nominee The Big Short. Here, a ragtag bunch of ‘outsiders’ attempt to cash in on the financial crash by betting against the housing market – and though the film’s tone is playful there are moments of real rage. We glimpse what The Wolf of Wall Street chose not to show: the impact that the bankers’ behaviour had on ordinary people. Money is not a game or an abstract concept when you’ve lost your home and you’re living on the breadline.
‘I have a feeling in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.’ - The Big Short
This is the other side of the coin, the world of the 99 per cent. Realistic screen portrayals of financial hardship without a fairytale ending don’t come along that often, perhaps because they don’t make good escapism – but film can be a tool for giving voice to the voiceless. In the moving French drama Two Days One Night, Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a woman who loses her factory job after taking time off with depression. Desperate to make ends meet for her family, she spends the titular two days and one night visiting her old colleagues, begging them to vote her back in – a move which will mean sacrificing their own bonuses. Through a series of contrasting encounters Sandra learns the deep value of friendship and community, and has her hope restored in surprising ways.
Stories like Two Days One Night show us that we live in a connected world, where our choices between greed and generosity, corruption and integrity, material riches and spiritual ones, can have a profound impact. Both individually and collectively, we’re rich only when we choose God’s riches in life – ‘for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Matthew 6:21).
Film club: questions to ask
What sort of financial world do the film’s characters live in? Are their clothes, homes and jobs aspirational, or relatable? Why do you think we enjoy stories about wealthy people?
Is money an issue in the story? If so, why? Are any of the characters driven by money, and how does this play out for them?
If the story features financial corruption, how is this portrayed? Do you think we’re encouraged to root for corrupt characters, or enjoy their behaviour? Do we see the consequences of their actions?
Where does the film suggest we might find real satisfaction in life? What ‘spiritual’ gains (such as truth, redemption, justice or improved relationships), if any, do the characters achieve?
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