Personal Finance Documentaries — What Can We Learn?

I read an interesting post the other day by MoneyCone about his favorite personal finance related movies.  It was while reading that list that I first came across a documentary about Walmart named: “The High Cost of Low Prices.”  That post got me started on a little personal finance related documentary kick.

This past week I have seen “The Art of the Steal”, “The High Cost of Low Prices”, and “Roger and Me.”  I am going to give a mini blurb about each documentary–however–that is not the point of this post.  Instead, I want to address a disturbing trend I noticed in each of these films, made and released in some cases years apart.  All deal with the “powers that be,” whether they be major corporations or the political and social “elite.”  What is different is the expectations of the average American.  As time has gone on, we appear to be more willing to have low expectations of employers.

Roger and Me, 1989

This is a Michael Moore film.  Love him or hate him–and I certainly do not agree with most of his political views; he does know how to craft a unique documentary.  As this was his first film, it is also Michael Moore at his most humble. (still not very humble).  The film details GM’s decision to close down plants and lay off 30,000 autoworkers in Mr. Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan.

At the beginning of the film there is documentary footage and exposition explaining how GM and the working class employee of the 1950’s and 1960’s had a great bond.  Both expected a lot out of each other, and Flint prospered–as did America during that era.

The current workers being laid off in the film’s present (late 1980’s) still feel slighted by management and still have some expectations of “their” corporation.  Some of the workers have been laid off multiple times and hold out hope they will be brought back again.  They figure the CEO will come to his senses and the plants will soon be reopened.

During this era, a sacred contract between employer and employee still appears to exist, tarnished though it is.  The workers seem genuinely surprised that GM would close down American stores and reopen them in Mexico to save labor costs.

The High Cost of Low Prices, 2005

Fifteen years later a much more jaded worker is revealed in this documentary that attempts to detail just how Walmart can afford to sell jeans for $10.00.  This documentary was released 16 years after “Roger and Me”, and the workers are frustrated by the perceived injustices they have faced at the hands of their corporate employer.  However, it does not appear they are wholly surprised.  They know that most corporations are perhaps looking for the cheapest way to raise profits.  A paradigm shift appears to have occurred in the mind of the American worker.

The Art of the Steal, 2009

This well-made documentary is surprisingly compelling despite its subject (art).  The film details how the cultural and political “elite” of Philadelphia have perhaps joined together to move classic impressionist artwork from “The Barnes Foundation” in the suburbs of Philadelphia into the city.

Dr. Barnes amassed one of the world’s greatest collections of artwork.  He had multiple Van Gogh’s, Monet’s, Picasso’s, and Dali’s.  In his will he explicitly asked that the artwork never be moved from its present location.  The film explores how the average Philadelphian sat silent, disinterested as the artwork was moved into the city Dr. Barnes detested so as to raise tourism dollars.


What these films, all seen over a long weekend have demonstrated to me, is that people used to expect a lot from our leaders. Whether they be corporations,  politicians, or the socio-economic and cultural “elite,”  it appears at one time there was an unspoken contract whereby we would work our hardest, but we would be respected in return.  I’m talking about the worker earning it as well.  Perhaps the worker has slipped over the years too.  That issue would rarely be shown in a documentary.  However, no matter who is to blame, it saddens me as a twenty-something professional to have come of age in an era where it’s seldom thought there might be a better way.  There used to be an unwritten contract between worker and employee.

By the time “Roger and Me” was made, the contract was being broken.  However, this was met with surprise.  Today, there is little “shock and awe” when a corporation acts inappropriately.  The expectations have been lowered.  This cuts across party lines.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into these documentaries.

Then again, perhaps I’m not.




Chris Thomas, owner of the online freelance writing and web-copy company, FreelancePF. Chris’s interest in personal finance stems from leaving grad school with six figures in student loan debt.