CAPSULE: CAPSULE: Though Michael Covel's documentary starts out looking like a study of the current financial meltdown, it is about much less and about much more. It is really a sort of scrapbook of opinions about how people make investments and how they end up making bad decisions. The film covers lotteries, poker betting, Jim Cramer, the housing collapse, baseball, Japanese fish markets, and especially herd instinct in investing. It frequently is just not clear what it is all about. In the final analysis BROKE: THE NEW AMERICAN DREAM just suggests that when people invest they should not follow the crowd but study and think what they are doing. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Who is Michael Covel? He is a writer of books about the stock market. And he is one of the founders of TurtleTrader.com, a site that follows stock market trends, reporting how stocks are changing and what people are saying about them. I went into this film assuming that it would be a whimsical history of the financial collapse of 2008. That is part of it, but it becomes clear that director and co-writer Covel is going to stray from that topic and will be looking at financial decisions of all kinds. He strays to Tokyo's Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the world and uses it to help define just what trading is. Then he will jump to Jim Cramer, the screaming prophet of stock trading on CNBC. Then he will talk about how lotteries hurt the poorest segments of society, many of whom see lotteries as their version of financial investing. US states and other countries know that lotteries are really virtually just a repressive tax on the poor, but they have grown addicted to getting income from this sort of voluntary tax.
There is little in life as ephemeral as financial information and scenes in this film could have done well to have a date on them to tell as of when the film is taking this point of view. Some of the information already seems a little dated and I am sure that more of it will be dated a year from now. Some of the information is intentionally outdated. One moment Covel is telling us why mutual funds are a bad idea and the next he will be showing us a 1950s high school educational film with the likes of Regis Toomey or Lyle Talbot giving pre-digested, over-simplified explanations of how to manage money. Covel flashes from the 1950s to the present and back. Not all of his older footage is about finances; he even throws in an old piece telling school children that the a-bomb blast can come at any time and to be ready for it. (Side note: I think that 1950s nuclear preparedness, duck-and-cover footage is seen more today than it was at the time it was made.)
Frustratingly, Covel will show one person talking saying one thing and comments on it run in subtitles at the same time so that each distracts from the other. Sometimes he will run a message like "27% of recent mortgages put no money down." The precision of 27% is undercut by the fact we do not know when he is saying it, and we do not have any idea how recent is "recent." Would he consider 1995 recent? Is this practice still going on? We have no idea. Similarly we learn "29% of new U.S. homeowners owe more on mortgages than houses are worth." Is this people who newly own homes or people who own just-built homes? Much of Covel's point is that most investment advice should not be trusted, even his advice. If one comes away from BROKE: THE NEW AMERICAN DREAM confused and unenlightened about what it is all about, that probably is a step to enlightenment.
In the end, this documentary is informative, but by its own definition is not very useful. There is too much financial advice out there to assimilate it all. Getting financial information from television and/or the Internet is like drinking from a fire hose. And advice is usually wrong. This documentary does not do a whole lot to give the viewer any more of an organized viewpoint. Covel, in a signature outfit of a t-shirt and shorts, is more pleasant to listen to than Jim Cramer, but is no more organized. Rather than giving an orderly point of view he gives flashes of other people talking about finances to give a sort of montage of what the current economic situation is. Covel's best advice is just not to trust advice. You have to sweat the details. In the end, Covel's message can be taken from Sergeant Esterhaus's weekly message on "Hill Street Blues". Esterhaus always gave this advice to the police going out into the new day, and Covel has just exactly the same message for investors: "Hey, let's be careful out there." I rate BROKE: THE NEW AMERICAN DREAM a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1326742/
Michael Covel's website for economic trend-tracking: http://www.turtletrader.com/
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper