On my first working day of 2023 I receive an email with a link to Madoff: the monster of Wall street:  ‘Triggers a lot, seeing many responses to it. Greetings Martijn’

It makes sense that Martijn van der Linden (Lector New Finance) sends me this link. We are always on the lookout for documentaries and films in the business context for our critical thinking with film research/courses. And as we are partnering THUAS research groups Change Management and New Finance to create teaching material and an e-learning course on critical thinking+film+finance, a new series tip is more than welcome.

But I feel resistance to watching this series. Why watch something about a certain monstrous businessman manipulating others into giving him money just to make himself richer and more powerful? Same goes for other popular series like HBO’s Industry and Succession. I actually took out an HBO subscription last year to watch these series, but after watching the first episode of Succession and Industry I turned to watching His Dark Materials and Olive Kitteridge for pure escapism and beautiful depictions of complex real life characters. The power play in Succession made my stomach churn – Industry I liked a bit better as there were more diverse and young characters that our students can relate to – but the first episode (spoiler alert) ends with a trainee who works himself to death.

At the same time I am reading a book The Way We Live Now that Anthony Trollope wrote 150 years ago. Trollope was abroad for a year and on his return to London was appalled by the changes in society, especially the greediness and dishonesty which made him write a satirical novel inspired by the financial scandals of the early 1870ies.  In this satirical book  the supposed  great railway from San Francisco to Vera Cruz is set up as an investment opportunity run by the Company, with only one weekly meeting of half an hour chaired by Melmotte. He is both mistrusted and desired by the aristocratic society:

He was not eloquent; but the gentlemen who heard him remembered that he was the great Augustus Melmotte, that he might probably make them all rich men, and they cheered in echo. […] Wonderful are the ways of trade! If one can only get the tips of one’s little finger into the right pie, what noble morsels, what rich esculents, will stick to it as it is extracted! (p.89). 

Melmotte to me is like Madoff. They are so much a caricature of pure greed and power that I cannot connect to them or that scheme of money making. Even as an adversary these characters do not work for me, it is too easy to be against them. They are too inhumane.

The book is as thick as a brick, but what made me continue reading is the character that makes “The Way We Live Now” interesting: Paul Montague, who is connected to the initial investment of the Company, and part of the board. He does enjoy the money he makes being on the board, but at the same time he is the only one on the board starting to ask questions about that railroad and eventually ends up removing himself from the board. What makes Paul an interesting character is because he’s a nuanced character, enjoying the money but also questioning it and changing his course of direction.

Similarly there is a remarkable scene in the film Margin Call (2011) relating a fictionalized night in a bank just before the mortgage crisis of 2008. In this scene you watch a conversation between the CEO of the bank John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) and financial executive Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), with the latter having to make a moral decision. Sam wants to quit the bank and not be part of the fire sale in faulty financial products to save the bank, but the CEO John want him to stay on for a few more years, and comes up with a speech how they have survived several economic crises together. At the end Sam responds:  “I’ll do it John, but not because of your little speech, but because I need the money. Hard to believe after all these years, but I need the money.”

Here again it is not the big boss that makes the scene interesting. The big bosses are stereotypes, cliché images of greedy businessmen and bankers. Only by breaking the cliché you can be shocked into thinking, according to Luc Peters in Cliché and Organization: thinking with Deleuze and film. The more nuanced figures of Paul and Sam are, the more they make the reader/viewer think about their own ideas and decisions on money, think about what you yourself would do in that context.

But thinking and talking about money is not necessary a nice thing to do. In The Triangle of Sadness, still in the cinema, a couple is discussing who has to pick up the bill in the restaurant, and the guy says that he finds it ‘uncomfortable’ to talk about money. The girl responds: ‘It is unsexy’.

The thing is we do have to talk about money. We all have a relationship with money, whether sexy or not, and we are part of the financial system. And a lot of changes are happening within that system as we speak, especially when it comes to digitalization of money. In 2023 my fellow researcher Nanna Freeman and I are going to explore The Waterworks of Money, using this animation about the financial system to understand it better and critically think together about it. Film in this respect will help this process, by looking into the cliché images and breaking it by relating/creating more realistic images. So Madoff might still get a watch but preferably we get less ‘monster-like’ images too to get a real dialogue started.

We would therefore like to invite you to the workshop “How to Teach The Waterworks of Money: applying critical thinking skills to film & finance´ on Friday afternoon February 17 from 13.00-15.00 – an online professionalization event that has proven to work. In the workshop together we explore using this animation, create content for our lessons and test it on each other.

The workshop will truly be a blended event | to prepare yourself:

  1. Send an email to w.vanderheide@hhs.nl to tell me you are coming.
  2. Follow our e-learning course How to teach critical thinking with film: an introduction. | which you can do at your own pace at the time it suits you  | it takes approximately 2 hours
  3. Watch The Waterworks of Money – met Videos (ftm.nl) (in Dutch – English viewing during workshop)

Sign up soon as we only have 10 spots…

Researcher for Change Management, investigating film, education & critical thinking. Implementing it as lecturer for International Business, all at THUAS.

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