There are TWO Londons & Why It MATTERS: introducing viewers to a secret world of tax evasion in a city within a city

“There are TWO Londons & Why It MATTERS” (Black Pigeon Speaks, 2017)

Why indeed should we be concerned that not one London but TWO Londons exist? Why are most Britons unaware of the existence of two Londons? The City of London – or more properly, the City of London Corporation aka the Square Mile – physically occupies a small amount of land along the Thames River in the heart of Greater London; yet by being the home of the Bank of England and the headquarters of all major British banks and domicile of a good many foreign banks, this city state within a city exercises an enormous amount of power and influence in the global financial industry and through that in the global economy and in global politics.

In this attractively presented mini-documentary, the Black Pigeon Speaks channel (hereafter BPS for convenience) traces the history of the Square Mile back to Roman times when it was founded. (This means the Square Mile is much older than the English nation or the English language.) BPS emphasises how different and secret the City of London is from the rest of London: it is led by its own Lord Mayor (separate from the Mayor of London) who has his own costume and golden carriage, and an annual parade in his honour, and who can refuse permission to the British monarch to enter the City of London premises. The City of London exercises influence in the British government through its representative in Westminster, known as the Remembrancer, to ensure that legislation passed does not harm its interests. The City is divided into 25 wards: in just 4 of these wards voters are people who live there; in the other 21 wards, the voters are corporations who end up exerting more influence on the City’s government than the 9,000 souls who live within its limits.

The main business of the City is in being a tax haven and thus a magnet and channel for money laundering and black hole hoovering up monies from drug barons, oligarchs, corrupt politicians and their families, and global companies wanting to lower or evade their taxation obligations. Its presence in London and mostly autonomous status prevent the British government from carrying out any major financial reforms in the British banking and insurance industry, and enable the financial economy in other countries such as the US to ignore those nations’ regulations and requirements.

The narration is clear and easy to follow and the presentation is quite relaxed and leisurely in pace. No actual data or statistics are given so the mini-documentary best serves as an introduction to the topic of the existence of the City of London and its malignant parasitic effect on proper and open governance, the economy of the United Kingdom, its people’s prosperity (or absence thereof) and on the economy of the rest of the world. I do get the feeling that BPS has relied quite a lot on known sources like Nicholas Shaxson on global tax evasion and tax havens. Viewers should not stop at this film but find out more about the City of London and its activities and about the scourge of tax havens and tax evasion, how it threatens the welfare and livelihoods of people throughout the world and the destruction of global environments, through their own investigations.

Black Pigeon Speaks is a controversial Youtube alternative news media channel that often espouses very right-wing opinions on a number of issues such as immigration and equality between men and women.

Money laundering, political corruption, stolen billions and a secret mafia in “The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire”

Michael Oswald, “The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire” (2017)

A very important and necessary documentary, in light of ongoing financial crises in many countries, supposedly necessitating austerity programs and privatisations of state-owned companies and corporations that have the effect of impoverishing the vast majority of people in those countries while leading to capital flight and the enrichment of elites, both local and foreign, “The Spider’s Web …” takes as its premise the notion that the British empire never really died; instead the empire transformed itself from a physical entity with a network of colonies covering the planet into an empire in the abstract: a financial empire whose network is flows of money and whose colonies are tax havens cum secrecy jurisdictions. At the heart of this second empire, as it was of the first, is the City of London, a political institution founded by the Romans and thus much older than the English people themselves, and which controls the British Parliament through having a seat there and the City Remembrancer who is the channel of communication between the City of London and the British government.

The documentary whisks viewers through a brief description of the City of London and how it controlled the British empire in the past and strove to recreate the empire through the financial industry. Particular attention is paid to the creation of secrecy jurisdictions in various offshore places like the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean Sea, the Channel Islands and other parts of the world. Other financial tools, strategies and institutions, such as trusts and the establishment of the London Eurodollar market, initially founded as quite innocent phenomena in themselves, eventually ended up being abused in the interest of evading tax and money-laundering. (Strangely the documentary does not mention the use of profit shifting among subsidiaries of a company in different taxation jurisdictions as a tax evasion ruse.) Oswald and the people he interviews – these include John Christensen, a former Deloittes’ accountant and current head of the Tax Justice Network, author Nicholas Shaxson who wrote “Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who stole the World”, economist Michael Hudson and European Parliament member Eva Joly – demonstrate how this second British empire exercises its malignant influences: by enabling corrupt politicians and others to hide vast amounts of money representing stolen wealth in accounts with overseas banks, while the people they govern flounder in debt and poverty; and by shifting wealth away from the economy of making and distributing goods (and services directly associated with that economy) to the economy of money flows, divorced from the real economy. Thus as the financial economy in a country becomes important, the other economy where goods are manufactured and sold to end users ends up being drained of its wealth by the financial economy parasite.

The documentary diverts into other secondary issues such as the power and influence of the major global accounting firms (Deloittes, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, KPMG) in enabling the British Empire Mk II to run smoothly, the phenomenon of Private Finance Initiative whereby private firms are contracted by government to carry out state projects, and the peculiar insular culture of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, which enforces conformity and secrecy on people working in banks in that tax haven and punishes whistle-blowers like Jersey councillor Stuart Syvret severely through constant lawsuits.

Made on the proverbial shoe-string budget (of 4,000 pounds sterling), the documentary by necessity has a minimal bare-bones style of presentation with voice-over narration and interviews doing all the work of providing facts and figures. For this reason, the documentary could work well as a radio or online sound broadcast. On the other hand, some animation that helps to illustrate the nature of such items as the PFI or trusts might have been helpful. Historical archive footage is used to good effect and is paralleled by the quaint and slightly risible parades and traditions that take place in the City of London. The documentary does tend to meander, at least until close to the end, and structuring it according to the topics discussed might have helped to keep it tighter and more coherent.

Even so, with its technical flaws, this film is concise, elegantly made and never boring; indeed, the story it has to tell is more riveting than any spy thriller Ian Fleming hammered out on his trusty typewriter while living in the Caribbean. It really deserves to be more widely seen and known: its argument that the British empire never actually went away but recreated itself through the global financial industry, ending up with a more extensive reach across the planet and greater riches than the physical empire ever did, is quietly and matter-of-factly persuasive.

A dense and really hard-hitting documentary in “Nationalized Finance: Russian Direct Investment Fund Focuses on Helping Country Expand and Grow”

“Nationalized Finance: Russian Direct Investment Fund Focuses on Helping Country Expand and Grow” (Vesti News, 6 August 2018)

An interesting and informative news documentary from Vesti News on Youtube has been attracting attention on how Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), invests its monies in major infrastructure projects and other projects in Russia deemed to be of national importance together with private and foreign investors. Through partnerships with large private investors and foreign government enterprises and investment funds, the RDIF selects what it considers the highest quality ventures – perhaps only a dozen or so out of thousands of such projects at any one time – and puts in money together with its partners at a ratio of 1 ruble for every 9 rubles the private or foreign investor invests. What criteria are used to determine which projects are selected for investment are not mentioned in the documentary but one yardstick is that for every ruble the RDIF invests in the project, there is a return of 3 rubles annually over the following 5 – 7 years of the project’s life.

After a brief explanation of what the RDIF does, where it invests and how it invests, including how it filters out projects deemed unsuitable for investment – unfortunately the English-language subtitles don’t do a great job of translating the Russian language narration, and miss out on two key areas of RDIF investment – the documentary dives straight into various case studies: a cancer research centre in Balashikha (Moscow oblast); Vladivostok International Airport; a co-investment with an Italian state road infrastructure investor into a road network linking Moscow with Rostov-on-Don and Krasnodar in the southern part of European Russia; a petrochemical construction site in Tobolsk; various co-investment fund platforms with Middle Eastern private and government investors; a fertiliser plant in Cherepovets; and a pharmaceutical company making insulin in Saint Petersburg. Case studies may feature attractively animated statistics that ingeniously stick themselves to the sides of buildings or onto roads; more prosaically, the narrator rattles off facts and other statistics in rapid-fire fashion and interviews various company spokespeople.

Dense on information and going bang-bang-bang with facts, the documentary needs a couple of viewings to be fully digested. It could be organised a bit better: more information about how the RFID was developed and the reasons why it came into being would have given a historical context for foreign viewers; the case studies could have been dealt with at a slower pace and in more detail; and maps showing where cities like Balashikha or projects like the M-4 “Don” highway are located would have been welcome. The case studies on the cancer centre and the Saint Petersburg pharmaceutical firm could have been grouped together. Surprisingly there were no case studies on agricultural projects (given that Russian agriculture has received an unexpected boost from US and European sanctions placed on the country in 2014 after Crimea joined the Russian Federation), especially those agricultural projects benefiting from technological innovations. The attractive female interviewer may be a distraction for some male viewers. 🙂 For the time being, this documentary is a good introduction to Russia’s sovereign wealth fund and the ways in which its monies are used.

Origins: The Journey of Humankind (Season 1, Episode 3: The Power of Money) – a shallow and confusing enquiry into the historical importance of money

Celso R Garcia, “Origins: The Journey of Humankind (Season 1, Episode 3: The Power of Money)” (2017)

One viewing of this episode of the National Geographic series was enough to put me off watching the rest of the series. Host Jason Silva is an earnest and enthusiastic commentator but his vocal delivery seems to have a hard grinding quality and his voice sounds as if he is being strangled by too many rocks far down his throat. His movements are often jerky and for some odd reason the camera crew insists on holding the camera at angles so that at times Silva appears to be looking and talking away from the camera, and this approach tends to emphasise his stiff body movements even more. With his voice and his body language, Silva comes across as a sales representative trying (and not too successfully at that) to pressure his customer into buying something – an approach that might be apt for this particular episode in the “Origins …” series which is about the hold that money has over humans.

For a series intended for family viewing, if this episode is typical, then the whole project should be re-thought. The structure of the episode is hard to understand and follow: we jump backwards and forwards in time as the narrative pursues detours into the history of the Atlantic slave trade that robbed the African continent of human talent and energy and put millions (plus their children born into slavery in the Americas) into bondage to European political, social and economic elites, then into the Opium Wars between the British and Chinese empires in the 1840s which delivered Hong Kong to the British, and the use of paper money in China during the reign of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan in the 1200s. Very little is said about why money is such an important invention that it spread all over the ancient civilised world like wildfire (as a means of exchange and as a measure and store of value) and how it is superior to bartering and other non-money forms of exchange. Practically no attention is given to other inventions and technologies that were spawned by the widespread acceptance and use of money: the rise of banks for example and the concepts of debt, loans and interest, that would in their turn enable and encourage the rise of social and political hierarchies based on material wealth as measured by money as well as accidents of birth; the invention of the stock market and the concepts of investment, risk and hedging against uncertainty; various other institutions and concepts such as insurance or the idea of a central bank to approve issues of money and to develop and conduct monetary policy; and the birth of book-keeping and accountancy. Not to mention of course digital technologies and the phenomenon that is the global financial economy.

Historical re-enactments are downright cheesy and take liberty with historical accuracy. They run for far too long and upset the documentary’s momentum. Some re-enactments, such as one early scene in which two desert African tribes exchange food and weapons, or a later scene set in Mesopotamia in which a sinister-looking Middle Eastern man wearing a turban encourages a youth to gamble away money needed to buy medicine for a sick woman strike this viewer as racially prejudiced. I cannot believe that such racial stereotypes can still be considered acceptable for a documentary TV series aimed at the general public.

Significant events covered by the documentary are attributed in their causes to the hold that money has over the participants. The problem with this simplistic idea is to deliver more power over human decision-making to money – it’s one way of holding people down, by denying them free will and responsibility for their actions as masters and slaves in a social system where hierarchy reigns and inequality is rife. The differing attitudes of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism towards work and the acquisition of material wealth count for little in the European drive to collect colonies from the 1500s on, as do the desire for territory and natural resources, and souls to forcibly convert to Christianity. The Opium Wars in China may very well have had their cause in the British use of opium as a means of exchange to acquire tea and other desired Chinese goods – but the opium was also handy as a weapon to weaken China by creating widespread drug addiction on a massive scale that was bound to affect the Middle Kingdom economically and for which the Chinese had no remedy.

Viewers may pick up some interesting facts and pieces of knowledge but the episode lacks a clear narrative structure that would encompass those facts and demonstrate how they are all related. At its worst, the episode appears to cherry-pick facts and ignore other related and significant facts. In particular, there is little said about who is ultimately responsible for creating money and regulating its creation and supply at any one time. Dare I say that the episode takes for granted that money should be allowed to flow freely through society without regulation that would distribute it more evenly so that everyone has a share in the society’s wealth and none has far too much or far too little?

Servant or Slave: how Aboriginal people were exploited for their labour in conditions of virtual slavery

Steven McGregor, “Servant or Slave” (2017)

Few Australians have very little appreciation of the apartheid-style society that exploited Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders and even Melanesians imported from abroad for their labour to clear land for pasture and plantation crops like sugar cane, establishing in the process the foundation for Australia’s agricultural wealth. But to understand how generations of Aboriginal children were taken away from their families for most of the 20th century, put into institutions that trained them to perform menial work or heavy labouring jobs for very little money (or even none), and how not just their employers but also Australian federal and state governments and their agencies benefited from such an institutional phenomenon, we need to know the social, political and economic context, and the ideology underpinning this context. The fact is that the Australian nation was founded on the exploitation of its resources – land, water, plants and animals, and ultimately even its native peoples – along with the exploitation of the convicts, migrants and others who came to the country after European settlement began in 1788, for geopolitical reasons that favoured a small English (and later British) elite. This exploitation was part of a vast imperial structure that encompassed lands in several continents (notably in Africa and southern Asia) and impoverished millions, destroyed their cultures and traditions, forced them to work and even to fight for their colonial masters in wars in distant countries, and allowed them to starve during periods of famine.

The value of “Servant or Slave” is not just to document how thousands of Aboriginal girls and young women were kidnapped or taken from their families and forced into institutions by the Australian government that trained them for domestic service, but to show how this arrangement was deeply embedded in Australian society and how the exploitation of Aboriginal people’s labour, through domestic service and other forms of employment, benefited the government and the people and companies who employed Aboriginal people in menial jobs or heavy physical work. The five indigenous women sharing their stories of how they were kidnapped by government agents from their families, put into institutions where they were beaten, sexually abused, brainwashed into believing they were inferior and taught not to trust their own people, and then later employed as full-time housekeepers, maids and unpaid baby-sitters, are very brave in reliving their experiences and traumas in interviews. They speak of the long-term psychological traumas and other harms they and their families (both their birth families and the families they later had themselves) suffered. These women’s experiences were typical of the experiences other Aboriginal girls (and even boys) had to undergo. Through interviews with historians and academics, we learn that Aboriginal people were never adequately paid for the work they did as domestic servants or rural agricultural workers and that as a result they could not amass and pass on any material wealth to their children and grandchildren, which helps to explain why so many Aboriginal families in many parts of Australia still live in poverty. Even more horrifying is news that the money that should have been paid to Aboriginal workers was instead used to fund even more predation of Aboriginal children and to support the institutions that trained them for lives of servitude.

The documentary uses re-enactments of the interviewees’ experiences to emphasise the fear they felt, their desperation and their isolation from help. While the re-enactments are tastefully done and are even poetic in style, they do tend to distance the audience from what is being shown on screen and don’t fully convey the horror of the abuse being portrayed or the victims’ immense suffering.

While the women interviewed reveal strength, determination and even pride that they endured such dreadful lives, and managed to find love through their children and grandchildren, the documentary ends on a fairly pessimistic note in observing that the monies owed to generations of Aboriginal people for their labour have either not been paid at all or are being dished out to them in ways and under conditions that are highly insulting and patronising towards them. It seems that the exploitative mind-set and ideology that dominated whitefella thinking and behaviour towards Aboriginal people from the mid-nineteenth century on still infects Australian politicians and bureaucrats, and still influences federal and state government policies that affect indigenous people’s lives. As Australia continues to follow the United States, Britain and other Western capitalist nations on a downward trajectory into more economic austerity, greater social inequality, lower standards of living and more financial and economic instability, the situation for Aboriginal people as a highly vulnerable group is likely to get worse.

Additional material that was not included in the original documentary focuses on the colonial exploitation of Melanesian people from the Solomon Islands and other Pacific island nations from the late nineteenth century as indentured labourers in sugar cane plantations in Queensland and other rural work that required much physical exertion in hot tropical or semi-tropical conditions.

Why is China Investing in the Balkans? – VisualPolitik’s guess is no better than yours or mine

“Why is China Investing in the Balkans?” (VisualPolitik EN, 26 March 2018)

VisualPolitik EN is a Youtube channel that posts short video clips on geopolitical and economic topics with a narrow and particular focus. These topics are delivered in a slickly knowing and smug manner by presenter Simon Whistler who at least presents well visually. The topic under his gimlet eye (made even more so by his glasses and his closeness to the camera) is exploring why China is investing in the Balkans region.

The narration starts off on the wrong foot by observing that the various small Balkan countries have one thing in common: they apparently all hate one another. Some also have other things in common: political corruption, large public debt, high levels of unemployment and growing poverty. From this starting point, and with a supercilious air, Whistler plunges into this particular deep end of Europe. Enter China whose politicians and business community seemingly believe they can solve the problems of this southeastern European region by buying ports in a bankrupt, debt-ridden Greece and upgrading their infrastructure, and in the long term incorporate these ports and Greece into China’s grand Silk Road Economic Belt which will encompass central and eastern Europe, central Asia, China itself and littoral areas around the Indian Ocean. Serbia is also keen on Chinese investment and Chinese companies (both private and state) have been busy inking contracts with the Serbians, acquiring industrial assets and opening branches and factories.

While the presentation is smooth and features clippings of videos and newspaper articles splashed across the screen, it doesn’t answer the question it asks. Sure there is reference to China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the potential benefits economic integration into the Chinese trading sphere could deliver to Greece and Serbia – but why do Greece and Serbia get preferential treatment from the Chinese, why aren’t other countries in the Balkans also clambering aboard the Beijing-led express? Why indeed have Greece and Serbia turned to Beijing and away from Brussels in the hope of saving their economies? What is the EU doing wrong in those two countries that the Greeks and Serbians hope China can correct? The  video fails to give adequate answers to these questions that viewers might be asking from watching and listening.

Venezuela, the Hidden Agenda: the history and nature of a long-running hybrid war for a nation’s oil resources

Hernando Calvo Ospina, “Venezuela, the Hidden Agenda / Venezuela, la Oscura Causa” (2017)

A very informative documentary, “Venezuela …” reveals the true nature of the war being waged against the South American country, currently one of the richest in accessible oil reserves in the world, by the United States and its allies: this war is a brutal one with roots going as far back as the early 20th century, when the then First Lord of the Admiralty in the British Empire, Winston Churchill (yes, that Winston Churchill), made the decision to convert all British warships from running on coal to oil – enabling the ships to accelerate more rapidly and run faster on fewer boilers – and thus made oil the most valuable, most desired commodity on Earth. The US-led war on Venezuela has been constant: it has not always been a hot war in the form of coups against legitimately elected governments leading to repressive dictatorships but it has been a war waged on several fronts – politically, economically and psychologically.

Wisely Calvo and his film crew allow his interviewees, several of them experts in domestic and international politics, the economy and Venezuelan history, to present the way in which this war has proceeded and continues to proceed on these fronts. Journalist Patricia Villega in particular describes how the political opposition, aided and abetted by the US, not only refuses to accept the results of presidential and parliamentary elections when these do not go in its favour but also stages protests and demonstrations in which they denounce and demand the resignation or overthrow of the legitimate government and resort to violence and arson at the first resort. Parallels between these actions and those of “demonstrators” in countries such as Ukraine (in Kiev in early 2014), in Syria (in Dar’aa in 2011) and Iran (in Mashhad and some other provincial cities in January 2018) are so close as to be eerie and to suggest that such actions emanate from a playbook or set of guidelines the “opposition” is urged or told to follow by unseen instigators. The economic war not only includes US trade sanctions against Venezuela – meaning that no country can trade with Venezuela for fear of US retaliation against it – but also the hoarding of staple foods and medicines by food importers and pharmaceutical companies which drive up the prices of these items out of reach of ordinary citizens, the aim of which is to foment unrest and dissatisfaction with government policies leading to protests which the political opposition can hijack (as was done in Syria in 2011) for its own purposes.

The film begins with a quick survey of Venezuelan-US relations from the early 20th century on, making very clear that US interest in meddling in Venezuela’s politics centres around the country’s oil and other energy resources. This survey segues into Hugo Chavez’s early attempt to enter politics (in a rather abrupt and dramatic manner in the form of a failed coup against President Carlos AndrĂ©s PĂ©rez in 1992) and his later presidency which then led (with his untimely death from cancer) to the current government of Nicolas Maduro. From there the film explores various aspects of the hybrid war the US wages on Venezuela: there is the economic war, expressed in trade sanctions and the hoarding actions of firms opposed to the governments of Presidents Chavez and Maduro, aimed at destabilising the economy and discrediting government policies; and there is also the propaganda war being carried out by local media companies, owned by private interests (some of which are allied to the political opposition), through TV, radio and print broadcasting. Foreign mainstream news media have also reported negatively on Chavez and Maduro’s styles of leadership, portraying them as authoritarian and repressive demagogues and damning their socialist policies and programs. From there, the role of Colombia as an ally of the US in destabilising Venezuela is briefly mentioned.

The film ends on a defiant note while treading a delicate line between trying to be optimistic and facing up to the likelihood that Venezuela will once again be steamrolled into submission by its more powerful and vicious neighbour to its north. That’s perhaps the most appropriate way to end its presentation, to rouse viewers to support Venezuela or at least believe that whatever happens to the country, its people will not give up hope of finally becoming free of all foreign interference.

Viewers who do not know much about Venezuela and who want to find more about why Chavez and Maduro have been demonised so much by the Western mainstream news media, and what they have been able to achieve in following a socialist path, need to do their own research as the film says very little about the Bolivarian revolutionary agenda and programs.

A message of determination, renewal and searching for justice for Grenfell Tower fire victims in “Failed By The State: The Struggle in the Shadow of Grenfell”

Ish and Daniel Renwick, “Failed By The State: The Struggle in the Shadow of Grenfell” (2017)

How could it be that one of the wealthiest parts of London – the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – could also allow a public-housing residential apartment block to be refurbished with shoddy substandard materials, such materials enabling that block to go up in flames in mid-2017 with the resultant loss of over 70 lives plus one stillborn baby, over 70 injuries and over 220 people needing to be rehoused (and many of them still awaiting rehousing as of this time of writing) after a fire broke out in one of its units? In this brief documentary, co-writer and narrator Ish – a former resident of Grenfell Tower – sets out with co-director Daniel Renwick to investigate the social, cultural and economic background to the Grenfell Tower fire through interviews with people of the local community, activists, Labour MP Emma Dent Coad and a member of the council governing the royal borough. The documentary is divided into three parts: the first investigating the fire in its wider context; the second part focusing on Grenfell Tower residents who lived through the fire and the council’s response; and the final part following the residents’ determination to learn lessons from the tragedy and to form a unified community to fight corporate and government power and reclaim their neighbourhood and rights to live in the area.

What Ish discovers in his investigation of the underlying context of the fire is a history of systematic discrimination by the council, whose members are either property developers or linked to property developers, against the Grenfell Tower residents and other poor communities in the borough in various forms such as deliberately denying these communities what they need in the way of proper housing, education and social services, and driving them out through various schemes including gentrification programs that destroy people’s homes and force them to move. Through such programs, property prices rise which help turn a tidy profit for developers and prevent poor people from returning.  This part (Part 1) of the documentary does not provide the historical context in which extremes of social inequality came to prevail in Kensington and Chelsea, and the extent to which its council – or even the British government – encouraged or countenanced such inequalities. Still, this section of the documentary reveals much about how remote the council and Westminster are from the needs of the poor people living in the borough.

The most impressive aspect of the documentary is the desire of residents in these poor communities to improve their lives and neighbourhoods by claiming political power back for themselves, and that any regeneration of poor areas like North Kensington (where Grenfell Tower was located) must serve the needs of working-class communities. This comes out especially clearly in Part 3 of the documentary but the whole film brims with passion and appetite for change. The challenge is to maintain the spirit of mutual help and cooperation that emerged immediately after the fire broke out, and use that to rebuild North Kensington.

For a short film made on a tiny budget, “Failed by the State …” is well structured and made, with articulate points of view made by residents and Ish a passionate and well-spoken narrator. The music soundtrack is minimal yet helps to emphasise the film’s message and particular moods suggested by some scenes. The documentary is well worth seeing for its message of hope and a community’s determination to honour victims of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy by defying corporate rapacity and government indifference and collusion.

The Queen of Versailles: portrait of a billionaire family living the American Dream and exploiting it to excess

Lauren Greenfield, “The Queen of Versailles” (2012)

Originally intended as a documentary on the construction of one of the largest single-family detached houses in the United States, this film ended up being a character study investigation of the house’s owners, David and Jackie Siegel, after David Siegel’s timeshare resort company Westgate Resorts crashed in a mountain of debt during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that came soon after. Following the Siegels as they try to cope with the fall in their fortunes to the extent of having to fire thousands of employees and most of their domestic servants, and putting their unfinished home up for sale at a time when others are dumping their houses on the market as well, the film becomes a fly-on-the-wall observer of this particular American Dream gone badly sour and the effect it has on one family’s relationships and the family members’ characters. Not commenting on the Siegels’ behaviour and excesses, and the sometimes abominable ways in which they treat their employees and household staff, the film forces viewers to make up their own minds about the character and morality of David and Jackie.

The astonishing aspect of the film is not the way in which the various characters, in particular David and Jackie Siegel, react and behave in the wake of their misfortune, nor the devastation they leave behind, nor even their children’s maturity in coping with their straitened circumstances compared to the parents’ own immaturity, but in how completely open the Siegels are in allowing the film-makers to track them and the ways in which they deal with the changes in their circumstances. Jackie copes by going on compulsive shopping splurges which result in a lot of waste and a considerable number of pet animals (bought for her children, who number eight in total plus a niece) dying unnecessarily because no-one knows how to look after them – the hired staff did all that but they’ve been let go – but she is clearly devoted to her husband and children, and is prepared to downsize her lifestyle. Her obsession with plastic surgery stems from a background of having been abused by her first husband and her desire to please her second husband David who – perhaps unsurprisingly – turns out to be the more contemptible figure. A Scrooge-like figure, David Siegel is uninterested in his younger children’s welfare – he has not even set aside money for their future education – and regards Jackie as a tiresome trophy wife cum compulsive shopper. Siegel’s idea of fun is to surround himself with 50 Miss America contestants in his home during a reception to promote the pageant: is this creepy or not for a man in his 70s?

One important part of the documentary is its description of the parasitic business model Westgate Resorts used that was the foundation of the Siegels’ excessive wealth: the company sold timeshare mortgages to people who dreamed of owning vacation homes for two weeks each year: homes that they would have to share with 26 other starry-eyed owners who were also sold timeshare mortgages, regardless of their ability to pay. Siegel then bundled these mortgages together in packages and used them as collateral to borrow even more money from banks to build more resorts which were then sold to more ordinary working folks who had to buy timeshare mortgages … and so the cycle continued. This particular house of cards was bound to collapse along with the banks that pursued similar lending policies once their respective vacation home and property bubbles burst. Once the money dries up and Westgate Resorts’ business model falls apart, Siegel becomes obsessed with holding onto a lavish hotel in Las Vegas. This means 7,000 Westgate Resorts employees are suddenly thrown into unemployment queues (presumably with no advice as to how to find work and no employment references) and the household staff are cut down with no thought as to how the Siegel children will be affected. Two nannies from the Philippines speak of how working for the Siegels has impacted on their families back home: one woman has not seen her children, siblings and parents for years on end.

As the weeks, months and eventually years drag on, the family’s financial situation becomes even more dire and relationships among the Siegels become very estranged. David Siegel retreats into his office amid a tower of papers and bills he refuses to pay, and doomsday in the form of a letter from the ban informing the couple of impending foreclosure encroaches upon them. While initially Jackie Siegel continues to stack up mounds of shopping, few of which she or her children need, the blonde bombshell turns out to be more realistic than her husband: she begins donating unwanted toys, clothes and other items to charity, she teaches her daughters how to prepare family meals and she anticipates having to move into a four-bedroom home that will be physically squeezy for a family of ten but plenty of room for steadfast and unconditional love (mostly coming from her).

At the end of the film, the family’s manifold problems remain unresolved but Jackie holds her head high as she surveys the crumbling ruins of her Versailles home and gardens. Whatever her faults and weaknesses, one has to admire Jackie for her lack of guile, her pluck and her loyalty to her family and friends. She tries to help an old school-friend keep her home by giving her $5,000 but unfortunately once the friend’s bank starts foreclosure proceedings, it insists on going through to the bitter end and the friend loses her home. On the other hand, David Siegel elicits little sympathy from viewers for his greed, his lack of reflection and his pathological need to hang onto that hotel in Las Vegas against all advice. Incredibly he boasts about having put George W Bush in power as US President before having second thoughts about admitting to doing something illegal and undemocratic to strangers who might report him.

Most viewers outside the US will wonder at the kind of psychopathic society that enables people like David Siegel and his company, and financial institutions to prey on and exploit the dreams and hopes of ordinary Americans for a better life, if not a luxurious one given to excess, and through their own short-sighted stupidity, avarice and incompetence bring a whole society crashing down in a succession of debt bubbles, in the process wiping out the middle class and sending huge numbers into poverty and destitution. While the film does not say anything about the context in which Westgate Resorts thrived by exploiting people’s dreams and desires, let alone pass judgement on it, nevertheless overseas audiences are likely to notice the apparent lack of proper government or other institutional oversight of an industry that allowed such corporate parasites to prey on the vulnerable and the unsuspecting.

Since the documentary was made, David Siegel attempted to sue the film-makers but failed. Jackie Siegel appeared on Celebrity Wife Swap. In mid-2015, the couple’s 18-year-old daughter Victoria died from an accidental overdose of methadone. Westgate Resorts has recovered to become a lucrative timeshare business once again, employing some 4,700 people and earning billions in sales revenues. The Siegels may one day be able to complete the construction of their Versailles mansion and move in. One wonders though what sort of “Happily Ever After” world will greet them if and when they do.

A riveting morality tale of corporate greed, sociopathy and Social Darwinism in “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”

Alex Gibney, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005)

A bit gimmicky in parts, especially in its transitions, but overall this documentary on the biggest corporate bankruptcy in pre-2008 US financial history is a riveting morality tale on the astonishing rise of energy corporation Enron and its equally astounding fall. Even with its chronological structure, the film exudes drama and an unreal and rather inhuman energy behind the company’s rollercoaster rise to fame and infamy. I can’t help but think that the company’s founders, executives and traders not only couldn’t believe their luck but also kept on pushing it to see how far they could go without being caught, knowing all the while that the more they pushed, the more likely they would be arrested, the more likely the company would fall – and fall hard. I also wonder if, had I been in their situation, whether I also would have pushed my luck and gambled hard, just as they did, if the money was continually flooding in my direction as a result of my misdeeds.

Enron begins drily enough with its founder Kenneth Lay, the Missouri-bred son of a Baptist preacher man, imbibing the ideology of free markets and deregulation, establishing Enron as an energy company in the early heady days of US President Ronald Reagan’s first term during which he set the ball rolling by sacking striking air traffic controllers campaigning for better wages and working conditions. Lay soon finds willing people to work for him and with him – firstly, two crooked traders engaged in risky trading and profit skimming who brought millions to the company, then later Jeff Skilling, Andy Fastow, Lou Pai among others – and with insider trading, the creation of dummy companies to hide debts, the declaration of profits that haven’t yet been earned and various creative accounting schemes, Enron grows very quickly indeed. Such quick growth though comes with expectations both within and without to do better and bigger, and the corruption begins to infiltrate right through the company culture. Skilling himself institutes a cut-throat culture in which employees are forced to compete among themselves in ever more predatory and pitiless behaviours if only to save their own hides from the sack.

Narrator Peter Coyote provides enough background and framework for the interviewees to tell their sides of the tale. Included among the interviewees is Fortune reporter Bethany McLean, co-author of the book “The Smartest Guys in the Room” on which the film is partly based; she and Enron whistle-blower Sherron Watkins emerge as the heroes of the film. A trader appears repentant as he recounts his involvement in the energy market manipulations that took advantage of California’s deregulation of its electricity and led to the rolling electricity blackouts that resulted in billions of dollars’ worth of real damage to that state’s economy and in various wildfires in parts.

One would think that the rollercoaster ride that was Enron’s history would be enough for this documentary but Gibney resorts to some cheap tricks to pad it out – fortunately the tale itself is compulsive enough that such glitches can be forgiven. The main deficiency of the film is to concentrate mostly on the central figures of Lay, Skilling, Fastow and their fellow rogues; while there is mention of other firms that helped Enron in its criminality (auditor Arthur Andersen being one guilty party that ended up being destroyed by Enron’s downfall), the film fails to address the central problem behind all the corporate shenanigans, this being the corporate capitalist system, the assumptions and values it relies on, the thinking, the behaviours and the particular cultures it generates as a result, and – most of all – the overall political culture, represented by the Bush family (members of which were close buddies of Kenneth lay) and itself shot through with layers of corporate corruption, that encouraged it. Instead there is a bizarre detour into a shallow investigation of Stanley Milgram’s famous Yale University experiments on authority and compliance, with the insinuation that ordinary people – the traders, the middle-level management – in the company are as much to blame as the Enron executives. There is nothing about how the Social Darwinist culture deliberately imported into Enron by Skilling might have created fear among most employees and stoked psychopathic behaviour in others.

What’s even more breath-taking than the corporate crimes is the actions of Lay, Skilling and some other senior Enron executives as they see their version of the Titanic sailing into the iceberg of ruin: they quickly decamp as fast as they can, taking millions in profits and golden handshakes, while investors and employees alike see their money disappear faster than you can say abracadabra.

Before the tying of loose ends and the rolling end credits, the film concludes with a warning from Watkins that what happened at Enron will happen again. It is a timely warning but unfortunately a warning that those who most need to hear it have ignored (as the Bernie Madoff pyramid scheme debacle and the 2008 collapse of Lehmann Brothers demonstrated) and will ignore again.