Everyone knows that economies large and small (corporate, government, individual) have their ups and downs. Growth—as measured in dollars instead of environmental effects—is always good. Contractions are to be avoided at all costs: they throw people out of work, tear families apart and cause anxious moments (more frequently jail time) for those who have taken the mantra “pay yourself first” to extreme lengths.
Jamie Kastner’s tightly crafted sojourn into the two main sides (those who lost but adjusted; those whose fortunes more than weathered the “bad paper” tsunami) of the most recent global downturn is a light-hearted take on the aftermath of the calamity seen from many different locales and points of view.
California makes a logical starting point. Perhaps only rivalled by Florida for foreclosures and bankruptcies, its physical distance from greed-infused Wall Street deftly hammers home how legendary investment banks can lure somewhat unsuspecting (more on that later) individuals into all manner of financial contracts that few (including the sales team) ever really understood. These financial vehicles had no clothes, methinks.
After some archival footage showing the ravages of The Great Depression (from desperate men preparing to plunge to their last bottom line on the pavement below through the current residents of Hooverville—shanty towns belying the American Dream), a visit to Camp Millionaire immediately sets the tone for the production to come. It’s a boot camp for 10- to 14-year olds who are being instilled with the power of taking control of their own finances as the best method to protect themselves when it becomes their turn to survive a financial collapse. The determined commandant has no qualms about scorning those who “didn’t invest wisely.” Like everything else in life, if it’s too good to be true, it always is. The pandemic of willful blindness shown by those who coveted high-interest returns and those who promised them drove much of the economic misery that began in the U.S. but—thanks to globalization—even found its way to oil-rich Dubai and is currently wreaking havoc with the likes of Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain.
As ever-inquisitive Kastner travels the Golden State, his easy-going interview style gives him ready access to—amongst others—a savvy real estate agent (yet laughing at the plight of the home owner whose timing couldn’t have been worse—never taking possession—was a tad uncomfortable), a now very flexible plastic surgeon (new hooters available on negotiable term payments), and the charity-minded proprietor of Goats ‘R’ Us. Everyone has lived to sell another day, but the “deal” landscape has shifted.
Then it’s off to Europe where highlights include former investment bankers in London going “for the kill” quite differently: Chess boxing features a rapid-fire first round playing the board game in the ring, but if checkmate doesn’t occur, the pair immediately duke it out for the enthusiastic bloodlust of the crowd. Berlin’s brothels offer an “eco” rate for clients who bike or take public transport to their upscale love nest. The market for luxury yachts in Cannes seems to be unaffected even as Brioni suits in Milan (as much as €43,000 for Vanquish II) continue to fly off the rack. It appears that those who do have money enjoy a bargain as much as the rest of us. Curiously, the famed clothier’s management representative is dead set against discussing the prices on camera, but Kastner manages to get them into the story nonetheless.
David Wall’s original music is at one with the filmmaker’s comedic sense. The rich array of instruments—notably mallet-led percussion—are as colourful as the subjects (music-noir muted trumpet, brushed cymbals and bass combine perfectly to underscore the jet plane repo segment). Jimmy Cox’s “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out”—like the Depression era footage—serves its purpose as a hymn for the downtrodden. “Recessionize,” sung by Susan Kastner makes the closing credits a musical delight.
Fun as all of this is, the lack of any screen time for a bona fide victim of the institutional swindlers may cause a few to think, “Well then, no harm done: see, everyone’s fine.” While not Kastner’s intent and beyond the scope of this film, perhaps there will be one laugh too many from those who—so far—didn’t get caught. JWR