The China Hustle
2018, R, 82 min. Directed by Jed Rothstein. Starring Carson Block, Dan David, Matthew Wiechert, Wesley Clark, James Chanos, Soren Aandahl.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 20, 2018
This is the story of a massive scam. "There are no good guys in this story," GeoInvesting co-founder turned financial whistleblower Dan David tells the camera before pausing. "Including me."
It's a story of how two small investment banks – the frat boy Roth on the West Coast, the politically connected Rodman & Renshaw on the East – worked out how to game the system when it came to China's rules restricting foreign investment. It's the story of the people who made money off the scam and walked away, and the ones who made money off revealing it, and the trusting bystanders who lost out. It's the story of how no one noticed because it did not take place on Wall Street's back door. In 2008, the U.S. economy was in free fall, and the smart money, the big money, was heading to China. The wolves of Wall Street just went to Beijing, and that's where quite possibly the most massive economic shell game ever happened, and is still happening. Think the trade deficit is a source of economic concern? The China Hustle makes the imminent trade war look like a fight over small change.
Documentarian Jed Rothstein (Before the Spring: After the Fall) appreciates that what happened was so unfathomably complex – reverse mergers, hedge funds, shorting stocks, the Chinese concept of Guanxi – but so easily dissected that there is no point hiding it behind enigmatic storytelling. The influence of executive producer Alex Gibney is clear in the photography and editing (making Gibney-esque now officially a term of art), but he has his own adept, incisive skill in linking a truly global economic crisis in the making, threading the narrative all the way from rural China to Flint, Michigan.
The China Hustle culminates as a jaw-dropping examination of the willing blindness of investors, of how easily duped the business class is by a few parties, a few drinks, a couple of meet-and-greets with aging rock stars and aging politicos (no moment is more disturbing than retired general turned board-member-for-hire Wesley Clark, doing his best Sergeant Schultz "I know nothing!" routine). It's also an examination of a clash of business cultures – the gung-ho superficiality of the U.S., the dedication to opacity of China (as the saying goes, in clear water there is no fish) – and the depressing reality that the people making money out of all this are doing more to fix this system than the entities supposedly charged with oversight. Rothstein's warning is clear: If, in five years' time, you're wondering where your retirement account went, the evidence is already out there. The question is, why is no one looking?