Let’s Make Money (Director: Erwin Wagenhofer): In 2005, I saw Wagenhofer’s We Feed the World (review), which was about the impact of globalization on food production. Here the director turns his typically dispassionate eye to the world of finance. As in his previous film, he takes us on a global tour, shooting in vivid widescreen 35mm. Along the way, he lets his interview subjects define the tenets of neo-liberal economics: deregulation of financial markets, liberalization of trade, reduction in the power of the state, and privatization of state-owned resources. He’s not an active presence in the film, and although he lets subjects from all sides of the issues speak, it’s in his editing and structuring of the film where his perspective comes through. For instance, after hearing from the German owner of a fabricating plant in India, we cut to a scene of a billboard advertising products for a European company. Under the billboard are the shacks of people too poor to ever afford these products. Wagenhofer lays out a very clear scenario where money is extracted from countries in the so-called “emerging markets” to enrich the already-wealthy “investors” from the West.
In Burkina Faso, the biggest export is cotton, a crop which leaves the soil unsuitable for growing anything else, including food. As a local production manager explains, Burkina Faso could support itself on its cotton exports alone if the US government didn’t subsidize its own cotton farmers. He complains that the West preaches free markets but then practices protectionism at home. The only other work in Burkina Faso is breaking rocks at a quarry, making the country look like a cross between a slave plantation and a prison chain gang.
Another startling segment is set in the southern region of Spain, the so-called Costa del Sol. Despite the desert climate, thousands of new apartments are being built around new golf courses. Since there is very little rain, these golf courses need to be constantly irrigated with massive amounts of water, even though hardly anyone in Spain plays golf. Worst of all, since these apartments are being sold as investment properties, many are being purchased by large pension funds. Local people simply can’t afford them. The end result is that nobody is living in them. In some sweeping helicopter shots, we see empty apartments covering huge swathes of previously unspoiled coastline. At the end of the film, we’re informed that there are three million of these empty apartments in Spain.
For the most part, the “talking head” interviews are filmed in unusual places, making them visually interesting. Development economist John Christensen is filmed on a beach in Jersey, where he was born, explaining how Jersey and other small places like it have become home to offshore trusts, a method for corporations to avoid tax and hide the origin of their profits. Former “economic hit man” John Perkins appears to be walking through a jungle as he explains his own predatory past.
All in all, Wagenhofer has created another compelling examination of forces that can often seem impersonal and impenetrable. The level of craft in his work is remarkable and he’s not afraid to put his camera in unexpected positions to make his points visually as well as with words. If I have one criticism, it’s that the film, at 107 minutes, is perhaps 20 minutes too long. This sort of exposition, no matter how beautifully and clearly presented, does tend to require a bit of time to process, and I think keeping this under 90 minutes would have given it more impact. At its current length, it would be easier to digest on a smaller screen. Making one of the sequences an extra on the DVD version seems like a good idea to me.