Narrated by Kieran Culkin in the same cheeky, cheeky millennial voice as Roman Roy of Succession, Wall Street Video Games (HBO Max) is a two-part documentary series that examines the furor over GameStop’s 2021 stock short-selling – the little guy “retail investors” who have banded together on Reddit forums to reclaim the power of… bought from the power-crazed, money-hungry hedge funds, but found out the hard way that history was bigger than just a stone.
GAME WALL STREET: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening shot: “The stock market is an enigma,” Kieran Culkin says in voiceover over a nighttime photo of lower Manhattan. “Deceptively complex, but also simple. It’s a parallel universe. And suddenly, a laser-cut neon reverse image hovers above the city’s buildings, streets, and bridges.
The essential: The stock market’s reputation as an all-powerful money-making machine for faceless hedge funds, giant corporations, financial industry professionals and other exclusive gatekeepers has taken a round punch to the chin in January 2021. Like the first episode of Wall Street Video Games That’s when a cross section of independent gamers, many unified under the banner of the r/wallstreetbets subreddit, pushed video game retailer GameStop’s stock into the stratosphere. (Or “to the moon” in the very online slang of these groups.) At least for a little while. But a stock that rose in value by a factor of 30 was going to make a lot of ordinary people rich if they kept pushing and pulling money out of the pockets of hedge funders at an alarmingly satisfying rate. As Culkin says in the voiceover, it was an “uprising by a bunch of people on the internet who said, ‘Let’s shoot these motherfuckers’.”
Of course, the financial news networks, the shirted Jim Cramers of the world, had no real metrics for this. “There are concerns about unsophisticated investors,” one guy grumbles in a supercut of the squeeze story. And that ties in with the main gripe of “retail investors,” as the independents are known in the industry. They don’t consider themselves “simplistic” just because they don’t trade for a financial titan. People like a group of sarcastic twenty-somethings interviewed in California, Kaspar, Austin and Matt. Or Joshua Merrill in Las Vegas. Or Jason Howell in Tallahassee, who is still bitter about the public fallout from the 2008 financial crisis and all those Too Big To Fail bailouts. Tayler Wilburn, whose net worth peaked when GameStop stock collapsed, is functionally homeless in Olympia, Washington. And yet, he felt empowered by his participation in the compression. “From my car, on borrowed Wi-Fi, I can be a tiny part of screwing Wall Street.”
Wall Street Video Games periodically deviates from interviews to feature animated footage that explains the mechanics of short selling, the stock market itself, or what’s known as the “GameStop Short Thesis.” It’s all narrated by Culkin without running out of swear words, and coupled with the doc’s manic chronicle of the online retail investor space, a place filled with as much hard financial data as .gifs, memes, of spastic messages and an adoration for “loss porn”, Games sounds a lot more like something out of internet or podcast culture than heavy documentary culture.
What shows will this remind you of? The 2017 documentary China’s turmoil explored the chronic short-selling activities of a group of Chinese companies that traded freely on the US Stock Exchange. The Wall Street Code (2013) looked at algorithms and their use in high-frequency stock markets. And the Netflix documentary series Dirty money highlights all the ways Big Dollar sticks it to the average person.
Our opinion : “I remember seeing pictures of these guys drinking champagne and laughing. Still in the back of my head, I was like, “If there’s a way to take these bastards down, let’s take them down,” because they destroyed a bunch of lives.” r/wallstreetbets Jason Howell to the ever-spinning financial industry, and how it broke so many ordinary people following the crash of 2008 and the resulting twenty-nine trillion dollar mistake, gives a solid base to Wall Street Video Games. It gives root to the narrative, a narrative that can sometimes feel like a printout of a particularly hyperactive online comment field. And while the graphic style used in the doc is accurately rendered, it also feels influenced by the creep of online humor. There’s knowledge to be had here about the nefarious acts of naked short sellers and the whispers of collusion between outfits like the stock trading app Robinhood – with their totally free trades, allegedly a friend of the little guy – and a gigantic slot machine like Citadel Securities. But the surface ambience of Wall Street Video Games is one of the occasional podcast crosstalk, as if jumping off lit screens and whispering with stock market data in the background of so many others Games interviews.
Sex and skin: Any.
Farewell shot: “I don’t consider this a denunciation. It’s that it needs to be brought to the surface,” Wall Street veteran Tobin Mulshine said of the rampant and illegal practice of naked short selling. “It’s not just one company, two companies, three companies. These are all companies that commit capital. And the bank didn’t care. And then a hammer, in the form of a graph. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.” The second part of the doc awaits you.
Sleeping Star: The gold star should probably go to the guy in his twenties who says nothing in the first part of Wall Street Video Gamesbut whose pals tell how it was his idea to write “Suck my nuts, Robinhood” on a skywriting banner as a defiant message of protest.
The most pilot line: “There’s this feeling, you know, that people are pissed off at hedge funds,” retail investor Joshua Merrill said of the hubbub over GameStop’s short sale. “It’s a matter of class disparity. It is a matter of income inequality. It’s about finally being able to win one for once.
Our call: SPREAD IT. If you liked the mix of harsh language and financial market minutiae that defined The big courtthen from its narrative to its visuals, you will dig Wall Street Video Games‘s all the whole groove.
Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicagoland. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glenganges