March 30, 2010 | By: Laurie Campbell

Cashing in on Hollywood

Movies about money that will move you.

Pop culture has plenty to teach in terms of financial literacy - movies about money, for example.
Indeed, having discussed popular books about money in this space, I think it’s worthwhile to talk about a few popular films about money. But let me clarify that. The movies I’m thinking about are works of fiction primarily experienced on a gut level rather than on the more rational level of a reading experience.
To put it another way, through the image-oriented, make-believe world of movies, I think it’s possible to experience something like emotional learning about money in addition to the more cerebral lessons that come from books most often created with education, rather than entertainment, in mind.
While there are few good feature films whose stories directly address crippling debt and ways out if it, there are a number of great movies I can think of that offer general life lessons about money. From these films insight can be gained into the deeper urges, influences and expectations that play out in our lives in the context of money.
Here, then, is my movie list. It includes five mainstream features that tell interesting stories relating to money management and finance - if only as a byproduct of the central storylines.

Doubtless many of you have already seen some or all of these films. If that’s the case, my advice is that they are worth seeing again on DVD, particularly if you’re in a situation where you’re evaluating or re-evaluating your finances and what money means to you in life.
Wall Street (1987). The message of this memorable film resonates even today – in fact especially today - thanks to a bad guy known as Gordon Gekko, the greedy, ruthless Wall Street titan played by Michael Douglas. Some 23 years after its release, we’re told the movie Wall Street will be getting a sequel. The new movie has a lot to live up to. The original film offered as clear a lesson as ever there was about putting greed and personal interest before ethics, self-respect and matters of the heart. Here, specifically, the heart belongs to one Bud Fox (played by Charlie Sheen). As Gordon Gekko’s eager and ambitious financial gopher, Bud learns through a number of twists and turns that coveting money and cheating your way to the top can have dire consequences. The story stands as a timeless reminder that if something in life seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. It’s good advice a lot of people with money troubles ought to consider since financial difficulties often stem from unrealistic expectations and exceeding one’s bounds.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994). There are a couple of important messages in this critically-acclaimed film about a wrongly accused New England banker named Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) who is sent to federal prison for many years. Andy suffers some terrible ordeals there. But thanks to his perseverance and his commitment to a carefully thought out plan, he escapes from prison. He even manages to create a financial nest egg for himself. While in prison, he is appointed money manager to a corrupt warden whose ill-gotten gains eventually end up in Andy’s possession through a little sleight of hand. The story is a good, if unusual, reminder to anyone that focus and patience are required for long-term security. The movie also illustrates life’s uncertainties. None of us can be sure about what fate holds in store, so we must do our best to be prepared; we must take the good with the bad, and learn to adapt.

Trading Places (1983). On a lighter note, here is a comic romp that begins with two aging, ultra-rich commodity brokers making a bet that they can turn a privileged rich kid named Louis Winthorpe III (played by Dan Aykroyd) into a common criminal, and reinvent a two-bit street hustler named Billy Ray Valentine (played by Eddie Murphy) as a successful businessman. The old guys conspire to have Louis and Billy trade places in life. It’s interesting and funny to see the different ways the two young men deal with their new financial circumstances. Message wise, the movie shares something with The Shawshank Redemption in that it addresses the issue of coping with life’s uncertainties. It also shares Wall Street’s lesson concerning self-interest, but with a positive twist. Trading Places promotes the idea that it’s only right to look after and think about your own finances, just don’t do so at the expense of others, or for that matter, at your own expense.

Jerry Maguire (1996). Here is another movie that will leave you with a smile by the time the final credits start rolling. Based on a real-life character, this is a dramatic but uplifting film about high-powered American sports agent Jerry Maguire (played by Tom Cruise). As the story unfolds, Jerry is on the rebound in his career and faces some big obstacles in a cutthroat business. In the process of overcoming those obstacles, Jerry learns to value people above money. His trials teach him to respect himself, to care for others and to understand the value of good business ethics. In a nutshell, the message here is that there is more to life than money. Additionally, Jerry shows us that we grow in spirit and positive self-awareness when we realize the true value of our abilities.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Now, back to a solemn note. The movie Glengarry Glen Ross is based on a celebrated play written by David Mamet, whose ear for dialogue and insight into today’s social and economic realities make for high drama. Or perhaps excruciating drama is a better way to put it, particularly as we watch one of the film’s main characters, Shelley Levene (played brilliantly by Jack Lemmon), come unglued. He is amongst a group of dishonest salesmen competing for business in a dingy real estate office where a dog-eat-dog ethos prevails, and where heart-breaking tragedy is the real end product. Desperation is the operative word here and it’s the main reason I’m mentioning this movie. As a cautionary tale, Glengarry Glen Ross amply illustrates the folly of acting foolishly out of desperation in difficult financial circumstances. Indeed, the message we always promote at Credit Canada is that, regardless of how desperate your financial situation seems to be, there is always hope. It just comes down to keeping a level head, educating yourself and perhaps reaching out to honest people with the financial know-how to give you a hand, like our counsellors at Credit Canada.

So that’s my list about movies concerning money. Of course, there are many other films whose storylines have something to tell us about money – everything from the classic Citizen Kane, to The Godfather series. But my blog space is limited. And besides, film reviewing is not my forte.

In closing, let me just say that if anyone out there is wondering why I didn’t include on the movie list It’s a Wonderful Life – possibly the most famous film ever about money problems and debt – it’s because I already reviewed it at length in my 2009 Christmas blog installment, which is available for reading in my Archive section (just search the column that you see to the right). Look for the installment dated December 2009.
You know, it just isn't Christmas until George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) discovers that a person's true wealth is measured by the love and support of family and friends.

And that, dear film fans, surely is the ultimate money lesson.


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