‘The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution’ Review: A Heady Documentary Looks at How Stock Trading Turned Into a ‘Rebellious’ Addiction
In the history of casual comments that sound like they could mark the end of civilization, there’s a staggering contender in “The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution” — all the more so because it comes from an investor who sounds reasonably intelligent. The movie, the latest documentary provocation written and directed by Ondi Timoner (“Mapplethorpe,” “We Live in Public”), is about the new era of lone stock traders — many, though not all of them, millennials — who grew up playing video games and now experience investing at home as a literal extension of that thrill-a-minute world. The new trading apps, designed as visual candy, are meant to give you the rush that gamers get (and also the high that people seek out from slot machines). Trying to sum up the lizard-brain appeal of it all, an investor named Mitchell Hennessey explains, “Even if you lose on the trade, confetti pops up, and it almost feels like you’re leveling up. Even if you might have lost 50 percent.” So you’ve just lost half your money, but it still feels like you’re a winner. That’s called drinking the snake oil.
In the last five years, I’ve seen and reviewed a number of very good documentaries about the brave new worlds made possible by digital media — films like “TikTok, Boom.” (about the TikTok revolution and the company’s Chinese ownership), “The American Meme” (about the world of influencers), “Under the Influence” (about the most scurrilous influencer of them all, David Dobrik), “Screened Out” (about what cell-phone addiction is doing to us), and “A Glitch in the Matrix” (an exploration of simulation theory, which holds that nothing around us is real, a theory that Elon Musk has gone on record as believing). These movies have done a marvelous job of not only capturing the new culture of disruption but of coloring in a new consciousness.
“The New Americans: Gaming a Revolution,” in its punkier way, feels just as fascinating and essential. It gets into terrain that’s tricky for a documentary to capture and make accessible (the ins and outs of finance), but Timoner, who has become a more graphically energized filmmaker, has made a kaleidoscopic movie that has us hanging on the details of meme stocks, diamond hands (holding onto a stock no matter what), and cryptocurrency. The stock market has long been driven by fantasies of wealth, but what “The New Americans” is about is how day trading, by civilians, has become the new normal: a high-rolling form of wealth management for people who mostly don’t have any. It’s all driven by the idea that the democratization of stock trading is a way to fight the power. It’s as if everyone at home were their own personal Jim Cramer crossed with Neo from “The Matrix.” They’re trying to red pill their way to a fortune.
As the movie presents it, the generation it’s focused on came into the adult world with massive debt (from college), no savings, and a system they feel is rigged against them. The have a distrust of everything: the government, the media, you name it. It’s all corrupt, it’s all fake, it’s all organized to delude us and let us down. As a result, everyone wants an instant shortcut to success. Life has become a fantasy of short cuts: the attaining of instant omni-visibility on YouTube or TikTok, the communication with memes, and the financial mindset of gamers who grew up trading “assets” with a click.
The possibility looms, of course, of making a killing. Statistically, the chances are small, but it’s what the gamer investing culture encourages you to believe can happen. And it’s not as if it’s all chance; there’s skill and knowledge involved — the split-second timing that hedge funds, built around the instantaneousness of computer analysis, use to their advantage. That level of speed and information is now, theoretically, available to anyone. But this, as the documentary captures, has also fused with a rebellious undercurrent that thinks of itself as being about something larger than finance.
That, as Timoner explores, is what drove the headline saga of GameStop, where a groundswell of investors, united through the subreddit page WallStreetBets, triggered a short squeeze, causing the stock to shoot up like a rocket. All of that wreaked havoc in the world of hedge-fund investors (who were short selling the stock). This occurred just a couple of weeks after the Capital Riot of January 6, 2021, and the documentary says it was not a coincidence. Both were unruly insurrections, driven less by logic — GameStop, a brick-and-mortar business without remarkable financials, in no way justified the short squeeze — than by an exhibitionistic rise-of-the-people symbolism. In this case: The people! Would jack up a stock! For a video-game store! And call down their wrath upon the elite!
As “The New Americans” reveals, the world of investing with attitude is all about mythology. That’s what it’s feeding, whether or not it plumps your bank account. It’s about stock trading as personal empowerment, as a way to undermine the system, as a way to fight the new American oligarchy. It’s no accident that one of the key apps of the era is called Robinhood.
Jean-Luc Godard, in his 1966 film “Masculin Féminin,” famously showcased “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” “The New Americans” is about the children of the 2008 financial meltdown and Roblox, a contradiction that feels closer to a recipe for dystopia. The 2008 collapse represents the falling away of our hopes and aspirations, of the American Dream. The surge of gamer rebellion is a way to get that power back. Yet it’s one that may be almost entirely delusional. Ondi Timoner sees through the illusion but also wants to sell the intoxication of it; and so the film, at times, seems less skeptical than it might have been. Then again, you could say that the film’s ambivalent semi-endorsement of these home-trader rebels just adds another onion layer to the grand illusion they’re caught up in.
The movie itself levels up, getting into the arcane world of cryptocurrency — and if the metaphysics of Bitcoin and NFTs tend to leave you scratching your head, you’ll appreciate how arresting this section of the film is. Timoner, once again, invites us to get caught up in the illusion, and maybe she herself is caught up in it too. One of her talking heads, Raoul Pal, a former hedge-fund insider who became the co-founder of Real Vision, declares that cryptocurrency is the future. But as we start to understand the ins and outs, the ups and downs, of currency that exists outside the system, and is sold (in the case of NFTs) on the basis of how cool the art is, the more the whole thing starts to look like a pyramid scheme. When the cryptocurrency market crashes, and a trillion dollars of wealth is wiped out, the question that hovers is: Was it ever really there?
In a sense, you could say the entire film is about video-game junkies trying to get rich — and get their adrenaline pumping — off financial bubbles. I mean, this is a movie in which the real Jordan Belfort, of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is presented as a paragon of common sense, and in which the influencers, like 20-year-old Instagram star Taylor Page, are all saying, “Look at what I did! Look at what you can do!”
These documentaries often end up being portraits of scoundrels, and in “The New Americans” the symbolic Worst Cad In The Movie is Joby Weeks, a Bitcoin evangelist who was accused of tax evasion and securities fraud after orchestrating a massive cryptocurrency scheme that, it’s alleged, bilked three quarters of a million people. Weeks, who is unapologetic, made a mint, traveled to 175 countries, met the Pope, drove the cars of his dreams, and did what he wanted. “I’ve always seen myself as a catalyst for revolution,” he says, and that’s the talk of the new generation — even when they’re old-fashioned greedheads. “The New Americans,” in a way, exposes them. But in another way the movie uses that rhetoric too. What it doesn’t want to say is that wealth, like matter, can neither be created nor destroyed — it can just be gathered, spread around, or lost. And one of the best ways to gather it is to convince all the people who are going to lose it that they’re part of a revolution.
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