"Dumb Money" is a smart movie about the 2021 stock-market mania over beleaguered retailer GameStop. The film combines comedic and documentary elements — like footage from breathless cable coverage on the meaning of the "meme-stock" rebellion — but also, subtly and unsettlingly, "Dumb Money" is a drama.
It's the story of a financial frenzy, to be sure, but also the broader technological and social upheavals leading to inequities in equity markets and, more profoundly, every sector of modern society.
While the film (and actual events) are jargony, the story is still straightforward: Individual investors (dubbed "dumb money" by Wall Street pros, hence the film's name), band together to run up GameStop stock, in direct conflict with common sense and some uncommonly wealthy hedge fund managers betting against, or shorting, the stock.
Key characters are introduced on-screen with a graphic revealing their net worth. But that doesn't reflect the self-worth of the internet-connected individuals led by a mild-mannered Mass Mutual worker by day and YouTuber by night, Keith Gill, who goes by the online name of Roaring Kitty.
Far from the fat cats of Wall Street, whose net worth is in the hundreds of millions or billions, Gill's working-class background and approach, and seemingly earnest and honest belief in the video-game retailer (deemed an essential business during the pandemic because it sold work-from-home computer components) stands in stark contrast to the short-sellers. Wearing a red ninja headband and cat-themed shirts — and most notably, rejecting Wall Street's opaqueness by opening his balance sheet to everyone — Gill rallies an online swarm of investors who threaten to edge the hedge funders at their own game.
The scores of GameStop investors are represented by four disparate, desperate individuals whose lives don't intersect in the film, but whose stories are similar to each other's, and to millions more like them in an ever-more unequal America. There's Jenny, a Pittsburgh nurse and single mom; Marcos, a Detroit GameStop employee; and Harmony and Riri, two University of Texas undergrads underwater with student loans. Like many who take to the Reddit forum fomenting the craze, they're thoroughly modern — including their use of profane online and spoken slang, earning "Dumb Money" an R rating. But they're also timeless, at least in their desire to believe in something, and someone — even if it's a past-its-prime video-game store and a not-yet-in-his-prime guy in a cat shirt.
Notably, their trust in Gill and thus GameStop belies declining belief in other U.S. institutions and individuals. (Indeed, shorting stock in optimism would have made a killing in recent years, as evidenced by opinion polls with headlines like Gallup's "Historically low faith in institutions continues.")
To be sure, "Dumb Money" won't rescue the ratings of the institutions like Wall Street or the individuals leading it, including three the film focuses on: Gabe Plotkin, whose hedge against GameStop is upended by the roar of Kitty's collective investors; Kenneth Griffin, who leads an investment fortress called Citadel; and Steven A. Cohen, hedge funder and owner of the New York Mets, who's followed by a pet pig (and metaphor) in the movie. These black hats — often sporting tennis whites — are joined by the founders of the commission-free Robinhood trading app, which is later portrayed as stealing from the poor and giving to the rich when the site, which is used by most of the GameStop investors, is shut down.
Beyond these on-screen depictions of Wall Street insiders, there's an investment in-crowd component to the movie, too. Teddy Schwarzman, scion of insider Steven A. Schwarzman, chief of the $1 trillion in assets Blackstone Group, is an executive producer; Rebecca Angelo and Lauren Schuker Blum, executive producers and lead screenwriters, are former Wall Street Journal reporters; and director Craig Gillespie's son reportedly made 50 times his investment on GameStop (though the dad got in at the top and lost). All lend "Dumb Money" credibility that will remind some moviegoers of "The Big Short," the 2015 Oscar-nominated film about how the housing bubble led to the 2007-08 financial crisis.
For others it may invoke "The Social Network," about the founding of Facebook. And in fact, two of the film's executive producers, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, were key characters, along with Mark Zuckerberg, in that saga, and "Dumb Money's" screenplay was adapted from a book by Ben Mezrich titled "The Antisocial Network: The GameStop Short Squeeze and the Ragtag Group of Amateur Traders That Brought Wall Street to Its Knees."
Unlike the subprime mortgage bubble, GameStop mania didn't bring the world to its knees. But it may have influenced how the world sees the U.S., and the financial system that undergirds America's superpower status.
"Economic standing matters a lot for a country's geopolitical position and capacity," said Robert Kahn, managing director of global macro-geoeconomics at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. Overall, Kahn said, "there's certainly a perception in many that U.S. financial markets have somehow grown disproportionate to the value they provide to the U.S. economy and to the world — that it's produced great wealth, but that it has a casino element to it, and also seems in some ways disproportionate to some measure of how value is placed. So when we talk about what the heads of banks make relative to a teacher, when we talk about the seeming gambling element involved in some of these markets, it is easy to see this is somehow out of sync."
Trying to get it back in sync through inverse investing isn't the way most economists would recommend. But interpreting individual — and in the GameStop stock phenomenon, collective — motivations is the job of economists, too. From that perspective, Ethan Struby, a Carleton College assistant professor of economics, perceives the episode as not just an economic, but a societal event.
"As an economist and a modeler, that just requires us to take a broad view of what people care about, and maybe what they care about is not exclusively making the most money but trying to make money and also trying to express that kind of solidarity or invest in an expressive way," Struby said. "I don't think that's great investment advice. I don't think doing what everyone else is doing is a smart way to make a lot of money, but I understand why people might choose to do it.
"I think what you're seeing is that the vast inequality in the United States is something that I think is a natural explanation for this kind of behavior. People see that there are very wealthy people, and they seem to get wealthier all the time, and some of the ways they seem to get wealthy seem fundamentally unfair."
The quixotic quest to buck this system may not have been sustainable. But ever-growing levels of inequality aren't either, so it would be unwise to ignore the message of "Dumb Money" and the movement that inspired it.