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This weekend was my sick weekend. Every summer, I get laid up with a big cold, and I can’t do anything but sleep, eat, and watch TV. After waking up at a bright and early 2 in the afternoon, I came down to watch some TV and eat (I guess I did the only three things I could do). As evening came, my family and I became sucked into a movie night, but not just any movie night. We got down to watching movies telling true stories of white collar crime, tales of greed and money manipulation. I ended up watching two documentaries: All the Queen’s Horses and Betting on Zero on Netflix. Both of these movies were delightfully short and a treat to watch.
All the Queen’s Horses, a 2017 documentary directed by Kelly Richmond Pope Ph.D, is the story of Rita Crundwell, a city official of Dixon who embezzled $53,000,000 out of the small town of Dixon, IL over the course of 20 years to fund her lavish lifestyle and love for owning and showing world champion horses. To this day, it is still the largest case of government fraud in the United States. The documentary takes you through the discovery, investigation, and the aftermath of the whole ordeal, including interviews with the FBI agent in charge of the case, the mayor in that time period, and professors knowledgable about the topic. Running at only an hour and 10 minutes, this movie is a great documentary to watch on the fly. You walk away with a great understanding of how Crundwell got away with her massive crime spree, the effects corruption has on a town like Dixon, and how a town reacts when this kind of bombshell drops. You also walk away with an understanding of the other parties at fault, including the government auditors and the bank serving the government. The only thing that I wish were added to the movie was Rita’s side of the story, as she declined an interview with the documentary crew. It’s rare to be able to learn about a person who has the ability within oneself to embezzle up to 5 million dollars per year for two decades, all while keeping the trust of an entire town. All the Queen’s Horses is definitely a documentary I would recommend. It only takes an hour of time investment, but the payout is definitely worth it.
The second movie I watched was a documentary called Betting on Zero, running at 98 minutes and directed by Ted Braun. The documentary focuses on Ben Ackman, a giant hedge fund manager that is working to expose the multilevel marketing corporation Herbalife as a large pyramid scheme. A pyramid scheme is a kind of investment scheme in which one makes money on bringing other people into the scheme rather than the sale of real goods to customers. What makes normal multilevel marketing companies legal and a pyramid scheme illegal is that a legitimate company has a real product to sell, everyone on each rung of the ladder gets something out of the business, and the price of the product is actually fair. On the contrary, pyramid schemes may have a product, but the value of the company lies with trying to recruit more people, knowing that the lower rungs of the latter will be running at a loss. What Ben Ackman is accusing Herbalife of is that their business model is a pyramid scheme disguised as a legitimate multilevel marketing model. Ben has also shorted a huge amount of shares of Herbalife, meaning that he has put in a lot of money betting on its downfall. Herbalife has been public in its denial of these accusations; the CEO of Herbalife even gives an interview defending himself and his company’s practices repeatedly in the movie. They even include interviews with people who have participated in Herbalife and their takes on the system. One of my only complaints about the movie is that it does act a bit biased by only including Herbalife customers who were burnt from investing in Herbalife and lost money. It creates a more stilted image of the company whereas some ambiguity may have served the documentary better. Other than that, Betting on Zero is an exceptional movie. I wasn’t all that familiar with Herbalife, and I had no idea that there was such a controversial company working at such a scale around the world. It will certainly open up your horizons as well.
There’s something about financial drama and intrigue that really sucks you in. Perhaps it has to do with the ways that people find ways to route or make money in some new innovative way, even if it is deceitful. Perhaps it is the scale of the effect that one person or one company can have on many people. Rita Crundwell took out 53 million dollars from a town herself, and it plunged the town into financial danger. Herbalife is an international service taken on by a single hedge fund manager who believes that it is committing deceitful business practices. I would recommend anyone with even a small taste for finance or crime to check out either of these documentaries. Both are short and sweet, but you walk away with a more in-depth understanding of the flow of money and what can be done with it.
As of this publication, All the Queen's Horses and Betting on Zero are both available on Netflix for streaming.
All the Queen's Horses Trailer (1:20)
Betting on Zero Trailer (2:20)