September 2nd: Fun with Free Markets – Part 3: Greed is God

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181. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, 2005)

Shown by Channel 4 as a kind of partner piece to The Shock Doctrine this documentary seeks to show how one of the biggest and seemingly most successful companies in recent American history was the perpetrator of one of the biggest cases of fraud in the history of the stock market. I know that might sound a little dull, like it might not make for particularly interesting viewing but this is one hell of a story with a cast of reprobates so devious that they make Gordon Gekko look like Father Christmas.

Enron was a company that started out as a natural gas pipeline in Houston. By the time of its collapse it had expanded through the 90s to become an enormous corporation listed as a Fortune 500 company and ranked amongst their ‘most respected’ investments. That’s one hell of a story arc.

There’s a central cast of intriguing characters beyond the company figurehead and central fall-guy Ken Lay. There’s the neo-fascistic CEO Jeffrey Skilling, who reinvents himself from boardroom geek to macho business aggressor. The man responsible for implementing a ‘rank and yank’ employee system, you received a yearly rank of 1 to 5 based on your earnings for the company, Skilling mandated that 10-15% of the staff had to be a 5 and that they would be immediately sacked. There’s the mysterious Lu Pi, put in charge of an important section of the business he is revealed to be obsessed with strip-clubs and brought strippers to the office to prove his position to them. And then there’s Andy Fastow the man who invented companies who dealt purely with Enron, thus guaranteeing the appearance of a thriving business where one didn’t exist.

Enron used ‘Mark-to-market’ accounting techniques. This is a key thing to understand in the film, it’s central to their money making techniques. Not being an accountant I’d have to say that ‘Mark-to-market’ accounting sounded an awful lot like ‘Making shit up’, funnily enough that seems to be how it turned out too.

With an entertaining soundtrack and a story that has a little bit of everything this film surprised me because it was far more interesting and entertaining than I ever thought it could be. In the words of my least favourite person on the face of this planet (Richard Littlejohn), ‘You couldn’t make it up.’

July 27th: Batshit Insane Country

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155. Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Alex Gibney, 2008)

Hunter S. Thompson is probably one of the most important journalists of the late 20th Century. The searing highs of his Fear and Loathing books will remain unique milestones in American literature – if you get the chance then read them. This documentary, narrated by Johnny Depp is, an encompassing look at the man.

I’m drawn to Thompson, he clearly wasn’t afraid of confrontation and radical thinking and a pretty extreme approach to life all round. He clearly inspired a following judging by the amount of people who would party with him at the drop of a hat.

The term Gonzo, meaning ‘Gonzo Journalism’, was coined to describe Thompson’s work. It involved the journalist themselves becoming subsumed into their story, writing it as a first person narrative and occasionally including fictional elements for exaggerated effect. Thompson’s work for Rolling Stone was scathing, angry and insightful at the time that it was produced, he represented the bleeding of the counter-culture into the mainstream. With his reports from the Democratic primaries in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 he stumbled into the heart of America’s internal machinery and decided he didn’t like what he saw. The access he had then would be impossible now which makes the book even more important.

All this is covered in the film but so is the less savoury side of Thompson, the rampant alcoholism, the gun obsession, the womanising and his eventual suicide. It’s easy to romanticise but the documentary is brave enough to include the criticism from his ex-wife about the way he ended his life and his brazen affairs. This stops the film from merely being a one-sided glorification of the man. Hunter S. Thompson could be a lazy ingrate, but he could write like no other and this is a fitting testament.