‘The most important movie of 2018 is one you may not have even heard of. But it’s a story that could be directly affecting you, endangering your financial stability and your future. If you have a 401(k) that’s lost value, or if you’ve lost a portion of your pension, there’s a chance this picture explains part of the reason why. The film is The China Hustle, opening this weekend in limited release and on select streaming services, and it is a klaxon warning of potentially impending economic disaster.
From the producers of the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, The China Hustle is directed by Jed Rothstein, director of the Academy Award nominated documentary Killing in the Name. This isn’t an exposé of a foregone scandal, mind you, but rather an ongoing one with major implications for our economy and that of China. Whatever short term financial gains exist for the businesses, banks, auditors, lawyers, and others involved in perpetuating or benefiting from the practices outlined in the movie, the long term damage won’t be limited to investors who get fleeced, and will instead inevitably implicate and harm entire sectors of both nations’ economies while destabilizing trade and banking for years.
With a limited theatrical release and being a documentary, The China Hustle would be expected to perform akin to most similar issue-oriented documentaries, meaning perhaps a few million dollars in theatrical revenue. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room for example took a little under $5 million at the 2005 box office. 2010’s Inside Job likewise took a tad below $5 million in theatrical receipts. The Corporationin 2004 brought in roughly $3.4 million around the world.
But The China Hustle’s release includes same-day availability on streaming services, which will reduce its theatrical take in exchange for the potential to reach a much larger audience via online streaming, where the ease of access and relatively lower cost of viewing could help grow the film’s audience and thus spread its warning message far and wide while also relying on quantity of viewership to provide necessary revenue streams.
I’d guess it might manage in the $1+ million range theatrically, but it’s frankly hard to tell what to expect. With enough press attention and public awareness — and make no mistake, it deserves and needs such attention due to the import of the subject matter — audiences in the limited theatrical markets will support it, and people at home wondering what new threat is emerging to their retirement plans (or, as is sadly the case for a lot of people, what threat wiped out their retirement savings already) will rent it.
Before I get to my full review, watch this exclusive clip from The China Hustle, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures…
Unlike many documentaries about finance, economics, and related frauds, The China Hustle is what some folks would call “accessible” for mainstream viewers with little knowledge of how stock markets and investments work. The picture does a good job of keeping things compartmentalized so each step gets explained simply, with demonstrations of how it works and why it turns out the way it does. We also see a lot of real people who lived through the fraud and suffered, others who lived through it and made a profit, and those who lived through it and profited but now work to expose it and put an end to it (and an end to their own profits, it should be noted).
Dan David serves as the equivalent of a protagonist, to the extent there is one. Originally from Flint, Michigan (where his family still live, and since we see them in the film I’ll throw out a “Go Green!” on behalf of my family’s own Michigan State alums), he is now the vice president and co-founder of GeoInvesting. Having steered investors toward Chinese companies offering big financial returns in the early days of this reverse merger era, David eventually realized something fishy was going on and began investigating. The results of his investigations led him to change tactics and spend the last several years raising the alarm — along with several other people featured in the movie as well — and trying to get Congress to take action.
Were those efforts successful? Well, he and his allies have been able to expose many fraudulent companies and brought them down, and he’s certainly helping spread the word and fighting back by taking the fraudsters’ money away. But on the other hand, Congress is generally uninterested in really stopping financial fraud — indeed, some would say they are enabling and encouraging it via deregulation and blatant attempts to ignore or sideline discussion or revelation of fraud. And the SEC has lacked adequate resources or gusto in these matters, to put it mildly.
Dan David has seen first-hand the destruction that economic indifference and exploitative corporate/regulatory mindsets can wage on communities. The film smartly keeps things grounded by time and again returning to the human side of the equation, including David’s discussion of what happened to his hometown in Flint, the several ordinary people who lost their life’s savings and pensions due to the fraud the film examines, and even the oppression and incarceration faced by an investigator caught gathering information about the fraudulent business practices.
So, you’re probably wondering what exactly the “hustle” itself is all about. I’ll try to explain it quickly…
Imagine you do lawn work for a living, mowing yards and trimming hedges and whatnot. Let’s say you work on maybe 10 yards per week, to keep it simple, and let’s say you have one or two people who help you do the work.
Okay, now imagine someone comes to you from another country — let’s make one up, the imaginary country of Fraudland — and they tell you, “Hey, I can put your company on the stock market in Fraudland, and make you rich.” This obviously sounds good to you, so they continue to explain how it works: “To do it, you have to be tied to a company in Fraudland, so you’ll merge with an old defunct paper company and then change its name to your own company’s name. Then we can put you on the stock market in that country, and we’ll get investors and banks etc there to recommend your company stock, we’ll say you’re ten times bigger than you are and that you do 1,000 yards per week, and we’ll drive up the stock price and inflate the value of your company.”
If at that point you got worried about going to jail because it all sounds illegal, you’d be perfectly reasonable to think so. But that’s the punchline to the whole plan, they tell you: “If we get caught, the banks and firms there in that country will pay some fines, but you’ll still get rich and you can’t go to jail because here in your country it’s not illegal to defraud and take the money from those investors in Fraudland. There’s no reason not to do it!”
That, in a very simplified nutshell, is what’s going on in The China Hustle. Small companies in China were merged with shell companies in the U.S., put on the stock exchanges, and then claim earnings, revenue, business, and so on that’s all far in excess of what the company is really doing. If they’re making $10 million, they might claim they’re making $100 million, for example. The paperwork is falsified, banks and investment firms and others promote the company as a good investment without doing due diligence to make sure it’s real and that the numbers add up, and so billions of dollars pour into these companies that are actually worth vastly less — sometimes almost nothing at all, apparently — and then the people committing the fraud, the banks and other financial institutions making huge commissions from investments in those fraudulent enterprises, and others walk away with the money while investors are left holding the bag.
This is the gist of titular hustle laid out in the documentary. They provide substantial evidence to back up these accusations — much of their claims are clearly documented and proven, while others are larger, broader claims about the nature of the system itself and those who should be policing it but don’t, and ultimately whatever denials are offered seem to pale in comparison to the simplicity of the explanations and documentation arguing in favor of the documentary’s position.
But while the primary fraud accusations are themselves damning and signal a major threat to global trade and economic stability, there is a more sinister and existential threat at the heart of the story. Quite simply, the implication impossible to ignore here is that most of the major institutions — banks, brokers, regulators, auditors, lawyers, investment firms, and so on — are perfectly aware of the situation, know the dangers involved, and simply ignore it or actively enable it because it’s making everyone filthy stinking rich.
Granted, the idea that our major financial institutions operating at all levels and in all capacities are part of a large systemic, institutionalized corruption is hardly a new concept, and I’m not naive enough to be shocked at revelations of such behavior in our financial system and institutions. But to see so much blatant evidence backing up the notion and explaining just how matter-of-factly everyone goes along with it, and to witness the sheer contempt that regulators and members of Congress have for anyone trying to really expose and stop such frauds, is still infuriating.
It’s one thing to talk about people who exploit vulnerabilities in the system and take advantage of it, and quite another thing to talk about the system as full of intentional vulnerabilities to allow exploitation for the enrichment of a few at the expense of the rest of us. Fraud becomes simply a daily part of doing business, and — as the film notes — companies literally budget money for payment of fines arising from their participation in inevitable fraud. Of course, the fines tend to consistently be vastly smaller sums of money than the profits made from the fraud, so there’s no real incentive to avoid the fraud and every incentive to engage in it.
With the human factor, accessibility, and good pacing working in its favor, The China Hustle also manages plenty of moments of humor — albeit sometimes dark humor, due to the subject matter — as well as wearing its ultimate outrage on its sleeve. It’s a scary story, even as it often tends to confirm things we already know or at least suspect about the financial system and those who use it to line their own pockets at the expense of everybody else.
The China Hustle is a briskly paced, easy to understand, humanizing look at what is being called one of the biggest financial frauds in history.