There is an amazing moment in The China Hustle unlike almost any I’ve seen in a documentary film. While being interviewed regarding his role at failed investment outfit Rodman & Renshaw, Wesley Clark, the retired general and erstwhile presidential candidate, suddenly seems to come to the realization that participating in this interview was actually a very bad decision.
In general, when it begins to dawn on an interview subject that the interview is, in fact, an ambush, you see a lot of reactions, but most professional, accomplished folks will manage to maintain their poise and filibuster their way through, giving the documentarian only mildly cringeworthy tape.
Wesley Clark… does not do this. Instead, he just completely panics. He becomes intensely agitated, raises his voice, and says (I’m basically transcribing here), “I don’t think I want to be in the film. I think it just invites attacks on me. I’m trying to build a business. I don’t want to be attacked. I didn’t do anything wrong.” He then storms right out in the middle of the interview. It’s somebody who once commanded the world’s most potent military in a very kinetic situation – at a very tense geopolitical moment, no less – melting down like a petulant child. It’s incredible.
It’s normally the kind of thing I’d say is worth the price of admission all by itself. But The China Hustle is one of the most disingenuous, cynical, and ultimately ugly documentaries I’ve ever seen. It exploits prejudice, engages in all kinds of abusive emotional manipulation, and relentlessly distorts facts – all in the service of promoting cynicism, xenophobia, and selfish disengagement. In that sense, it is, for sure, a movie very much of its moment.
The China Hustle is, nominally, about something interesting: a wave of Chinese companies that hit American markets seeking investment capital in the immediate wake of the financial crisis/Great Recession, and how many (most? all?) turned out to be frauds, with the bill falling on retail and institutional investors who got in at the wrong time – or who didn’t get out at the right time. This is, potentially, an interesting entry point into discussing bigger questions. Among them maybe not “what is capitalism,” but at least “what are some of the challenges raised by globalization, technology, the rise of a broader investment class,” etc.
Notice those hedge words, nominally, potentially? That’s because The China Hustle desperately wants to be The Big Short, the next Inside Job, the next “Giant Pool of Money,” the next hot property about financial shenanigans and how they mean WALL STREET IS CORRUPT and THE GOVERNMENT ISN’T DOING ANYTHING ABOUT IT and NOW THE CHINESE ARE IN ON IT TOO. The problem is The China Hustle’s story can’t support that, both in terms of the actual facts of its story and its depth and breadth. These frauds are big, you know, but like, combined, they’re in the ballpark of the amount of money lost each year to payment systems fraudsters, and maybe 0.05% the cost of the 2008 financial crisis. Remember when I said that the film probably can’t support questions as weighty as “what is capitalism?” Well, those are literally the very first words spoken in the film. Strap in.
At one point I thought about actually trying to make this review a thorough debunking and take down of The China Hustle. I was going to document every misleading way it presented events and facts – there are so many – either in how it dragged unrelated events or phenomena with the sole purpose of zapping out limbic system. I particularly detested the way the present-day state of Flint, Michigan was dragged in – or every time it simply sought to bamboozle, confuse, or manipulate its audience into swallowing what is, essentially, a cocktail of bullshit mixed by someone whose primary goal seems solely to get attention, to be a newsmaker, to blow the next big whistle. In its attempt to do so, it concludes by inching close to claiming that one of the world’s largest public companies is a scam without an shred of evidence other than the fact that it’s Chinese. Yep, it’s that kind of movie.
But at some point you have to pick your battles. Let me pick just one – the film, directly and through the subjects with which it clearly identifies most, repeatedly asserts that “the SEC didn’t do anything” about reverse merger fraud emanating from China. In fact, it took Google just 0.48 seconds just now to produce a barrage of results from 2011-12, right when all the fraud was happening, from the SEC issuing investor warnings, promulgating new regulations tightening reverse mergers, and taking enforcement actions against the US-based targets it could get its hands on. These facts are unbelievably easy to find, and directly contradict core claims made by The China Hustle. The film could have argued that the SEC’s actions were ineffective, didn’t go far enough, were smoke and mirrors to give the appearance of action, etc. But instead it not only said nothing about these things, it straight-up lied about them. I found probably a dozen more just like this in The China Hustle, using such magical powers as “spending a few seconds Googling stuff the movie is talking about” and…nope, that was it, just a few seconds on Google and huge chunks of this movie just unravel like a cassette tape in a toddler’s hands.
The China Hustle is too nakedly thirsty, too slickly hollow, and ultimately too unambitious to really gain any momentum. It’s going to fail without my help (at least I hope it will). The great irony is that The China Hustle, a film about scams, is itself a scam, an attempt to manipulate you into parting with your money.
A final PSA. While it seems the biggest losers were institutional investors, The China Hustle does actually track down a few individual retail investors who purport to have suffered six-figure losses to their retirement funds by falling for the scams documented. This is genuinely awful.
Always remember this: when you’re investing your money, if it sounds too good to be true, it always is. Always. Every time. Please.