Score: 4 stars **** out of 4 ****
Towards the end of this blistering documentary from writer/director Jed Rothstein, one of the principal figures interviewed in the film summarizes what we’ve just seen with the sarcastic comment “this time it’ll be different” when referring to bad behavior on Wall Street, implying things will actually never change.
Serving as something of a sequel or bookend to the equally brilliant 2015 live-action “The Big Short,” “The China Hustle” proves that if there is a way — any way — for greedy and unscrupulous people in positions of power to make a buck by scamming the masses they will do so and damn the consequences.
Long before the start of the 2007 global financial meltdown, start-up companies in China began participating in something referred to as “reverse mergers.” Defined, this is a legal loophole where a foreign company can merge with an American firm already listed on either the NYSE or NASDAQ and as such, will not have to go through the arduous process of vetting or audits. In most cases these American companies were inactive or something close to it for some time and only benefit from this arrangement.
The biggest of many problems with these types of deals is that they’re based on misinformation provided by the incoming company not subject to verification or U.S. laws. A company actually worth $100,000 could claim its value at $10 million and no one could prove them wrong — at least not initially.
This is where the film begins to resemble “The Wolf of Wall Street.” A brokerage firm located in a small Pennsylvania town catches wind of selling what are essentially penny stocks to unsuspecting investors with promises of huge returns. If investors were suspicious of malfeasance, these issues would be assuaged by testimonials provided by respected firms who all (via foreign-based satellite “franchise” offices) attest to provided financial declarations.
One of the few slivers of hope in this gargantuan scam comes by way of Dan David, co-founder of GEO Investing, the company in that tiny Pennsylvania town who was trying to claw his way out of the rubble of the 2007 crash. Originally from Flint, Michigan, David jumped at the chance to get in on this newest wealth model but soon discovered where it was headed and tried — to no avail — to make people in power aware of it. It might (not) come as a surprise to you that even after bringing this to the attention of American lawmakers such as but not limited to Elizabeth Warren, nothing has been done to stop it.
David opens the film by stating “there are no good guys in this story, including me” and he’s kind of right. David is still profiting from the short sales of these Chinese companies but in a way he’s saying “look at me making all of this money — it’s not right — do something about it” and then hearing crickets.
There is enough going down in Rothstein’s ultra-compact 82 minute film to make another movie twice as long, if not a four-part cable mini-series. From a creative perspective, “The China Hustle” is as close to perfect as a documentary can get. Bearing many of the same artistic flourishes seen in co-producer Alex Gibney’s best efforts (meaning most of them), Rothstein is able to present the material that is at once loose and focused; nothing’s ever harried, rushed, or forcibly condensed. Adam Mackay — to almost everyone’s surprise — did much the same with “The Big Short,” a film that worked as well as a comedy as it did a drama and came with the same type of ignored foreboding warnings. What has taken place since 2006 in China has cost American investors over $14 billion and the tab is still open.
At one point in the film, someone tries to explain capitalism, which in the world of finance, is the equivalent of trying to define the word “love.” Is it supply and demand or the ability to persuade people to trust you when they consider willfully separating you from your money? There’s a great deal of grey area here but as long as methods of separation fall within the letter of the law, everything is fair game.
We either need to institute more concise, less evasive laws, hope the masses become better informed, or elect public officials actually dedicated to righting wrongs. Which one of these do you think will happen first, if ever? “The China Hustle” opens nationwide on March 30.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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