"I don't think most people really understood that they were in a casino," says award-winning financial reporter Mark Pittman. "When you're in the Street's casino, you've got to play by their rules." In this easily accessible documentary by investigative reporters Leslie and Alexander Cockburn, who have spent nearly 30 years uncovering major stories for PBS, CBS Reports, and 60 Minutes, the subject is the subprime mortgage meltdown which has resulted in over one million people losing their homes.
The metaphor of a casino is an apt one, and they make it clear that real people were the chips in the games played by stockbrokers, banks, real estate brokers, and other wheeler dealers ready, willing, and able to prey on the public for their own massive financial gain. It all started in 2000 when Congress passed legislation deregulating the financial industry. And in a clip from a recent hearing, Alan Greenspan admits that his ideology about the free market over the past 40 years has been "flawed."
The Cockburns present a series of interviews with some of the players in this game that has resulted in the collapse of the American Dream for so many homeowners. A professor explains how the bankers fought off attempts to regulate their trillion dollar derivatives business, an investment banker (disguised to prevent his identity) reveals the tricks of the trade in selling financial products, a mortgage bond salesman blames the financial collapse on greed, a mortgage lender explains how he falsified borrowers' incomes to meet the terms of a loan, a former lawyer with a mortgage bank shows how the forms borrowers' signed were filled with arcane language and often signed on "the hood of a car," and a California real estate investor pats himself on the back for earning $500 million so far.
But the real heart of this documentary deals with the African-Americans who were one of the primary targets of this subprime crisis. In three heart-breaking stories, we meet a female minister who is now living in a car, a social studies teacher at a Maryland high school who explains how he was duped by deceptions in the terms of his mortgage contract, and a therapist who is engaged in a valiant effort to stop her home from being foreclosed. A Baltimore housing official tracks foreclosed houses in Baltimore and declares the toxic impact on neighborhoods.
Another side of the story is seen in the number of homes now owned by banks in a subdivision in California about an hour away from San Francisco. The final piece of evidence on the dire effects of foreclosures on communities is a report from Riverside, California, on how swimming pools in abandoned homes have become breeding grounds for West Nile mosquitoes, rodents, and snakes.