What is capitalism? The China Hustle, a new financial corruption documentary from Jed Rothstein, opens with that ambitiously broad question. Over the course of the next 82 minutes, viewers learn about an international scam that resulted in more than, according to the movie, $14 billion stolen from Americans’ public pensions. They do not, unfortunately, get any meaningful exploration of what this scam means within the context of global capitalism.
What is the eponymous “China Hustle?” Between 2008 and 2012, a group of third-tier U.S. investment bankers took advantage of a loophole in our financial system. Eager to break into the booming Chinese market in the wake of the U.S. financial crisis, the investment bankers sought out Chinese companies looking to trade on U.S. exchanges. In exchange for setting up “reverse mergers” with defunct American companies that would allow these Chinese companies to trade in the U.S. without going through the rigorous auditing process usually requrired, these U.S. banks were granted access to the Chinese market.
Soon, investors like The China Hustle‘s protagonist Dan David began noticing that the profits many of these Chinese companies were claiming were often fabricated. David set up a company, GeoInvesting, which works to investigate U.S.-listed Chinese companies. While David makes profits by short-selling the stocks affiliated with the companies GeoInvesting investigates, he also actively lobbies Congress to close the loophole that made it all possible. He is part of a self-described group of “activist short-sellers” working to improve the system while actively profitting from it. I’ll leave you to make your own moral judgments.
There’s a lot to break down and unpack here and, unfortunately, The China Hustle doesn’t do a very good job, using a shiny barage of different documentary techniques—from talking head interviews to glib voiceover to informational graphics—in place of broader, more detailed reporting. In addition to the “activist short-sellers,” The China Hustle talks to financial reporters, corporate lawyers, and even Gen. Wesley Clark (who was a chairman at Rodman & Renshaw, a Wall Street firm involved in the practice), but it’s all so splashily edited together that it’s hard to get a sense of any of who these “characters” are—their interests, their biases, their goals.
The China Hustle may have worked better a few years ago, pre-The Big Short or in the years following the 2008 financial crisis. One of Michael Moore’s 13 Rules For Making Documentary Films is “don’t tell me shit I already know.” Americans know that our financial system is corrupt, has entirely too much power with very little accountability, and is completely comfortable screwing over the average joe if it means making money. We don’t need to watch a documentary film to understand that; we just have to look at the world around us.
What we do need is more reporting, documentaries, and conversations that put that status quo into context. How did we get there? What are some of the possible ways out? Is there anything we can do about it? The China Hustle seems to know that the average viewer is already on board with its narrative of the financial system as corrupt, which is why it attempts to shift the story. It is a good instinct. However, instead of broadening the story into a more ambitious, relevant context, it makes it smaller, focusing on how this system of short-selling has affected one person named Dan David.
By making David the protagonist of the film, it is largely unable or unwilling to interrogate his own murky relationship with this system of financial privilege and power. The film’s insistence on making David the hero of the film is particularly unpalatable in moments when we see the people who are truly suffering because of financial injustices like this one. In the most gripping sequence of the film, we learn about the two-year imprisonment of Chinese citizen who was investigating one of these Chinese companies for one of our “activist short-sellers.” Later, we meet an American man in his 60s who lost his and his wife’s retirement savings to this practice.
The China Hustle fails in the avenues it obviously sees, but chooses not to venture down—these stories of real-world impact, yes, but also more articulate comparisons between U.S. business culture and Chinese business culture. We hear from a lot of white American men about the corrupt aspects of Chinese business culture, but it’s hard to understand what that means in the context of an entire documentary about the failings of American business culture.
The China Hustle makes for an infuriating (and sometimes engaging) watch, but it falls far short of putting this particular financial practice into the context of global capitalism.. This is a shame; it’s a perspective the average viewer needs now more than ever.
The China Hustle opens Friday, March 30.