Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Discover a messy Wall Street scandal in 'The China Hustle'

Dan David in "The China Hustle," a Magnolia Pictures release. 

The world was profoundly affected by the stock market crash of 2008, and Americans are still feeling the consequences. However, since 2008, Chinese markets have appeared to be unaffected and even improving in some cases. Documentary filmmaker Jed Rothstein’s “The China Hustle” explores a loophole that may have allowed Chinese companies to exploit world markets.

While it has a riveting premise, the documentary falls into the same trap from which many economic and Wall Street-centric films spring: it places a great deal of emphasis on economic and stock market terminology, which the filmmakers bend over backwards to explain, taking away from the more interesting, more humanizing aspects of the story.

“There are no good guys in this story,” says Dan David, cofounder of GeoInvesting and de facto protagonist of the film. In short, he is correct. The documentary delves into the seedy underworld of investing that is somehow both rightfully infamous and markedly misunderstood. David, along with a medley of lawyers, CEOs and industry insiders takes the viewer down a road fraught with suspicious business deals made by greedy opportunists.

Once again, the premise in itself is engaging: American firms exploited a loophole in U.S. laws, allowing for Chinese companies to compete on the Wall Street stock exchange. The documentary explores the processes involved in such a scandal, as well as the repercussions on the perpetrators and the impact on average American citizens. It provides evidence for the cliche that those on Wall Street are hedonistic and disregard the profound consequences of their actions.

However, the way the documentary comes to these conclusions are at times confusing. Reverse mergers -- processes that are integral to the understanding of how Chinese companies could infiltrate American trade -- and other market jargon take up a substantial chunk of the documentary.  Reverse mergers, as explained by several experts, allow Chinese companies to inhabit the shell of a defunct -- but still legally existing -- American company, eventually taking that company’s place. Short selling -- a practice used by David to combat fraudulent companies on the market -- is essentially betting on a stock to go down instead of up.

These terms comprise about 30 to 40 minutes of this documentary when they could have been summed up in a gist.

Another misstep of the film was its choice to try and humanize David. The viewer learns much later in the doc that David is from Flint, Michigan, a town plagued by poverty and water shortages, a result of corporate carelessness and government neglect. At a family barbecue, David explains his philosophy and methods to family and friends. Through short selling the Chinese companies in the stock exchange (effectively betting against them), David plans on taking their money away, and in turn, their influence on the U.S. economy.

David is portrayed as a rogue investor intent on vigilante justice, but it should be noted that he is still profiting from the losses of these companies, and it remains unclear as to what he is doing with this money. Toward the end of the film, he unsuccessfully attempts to lobby Congress, but his method -- literally just approaching Congressmen and telling them to read his book on the subject -- leaves the viewer asking what exactly he expected to accomplish from the endeavor.

“The China Hustle” deals with the complexities as well as the impacts of the 2008 financial crisis, but in its attempts to use broad strokes, creates a narratively anemic film. For those interested (and well-versed) in stock market fraud and foreign influence, this film handles the issues with relative grace. However, its reliance on industry nomenclature and the absence of any clearstructure limits the documentary’s reach.

Grade: C

“The China Hustle” opened March 30 at Landmark’s E Street Cinema

bermer@theeagleonline.com


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