The phenomena behind the David vs. Goliath story of retail stock traders taking on Wall Street investors is one of the most fascinating in recent history — so much so, that there have been a number of film documentaries reported about the real-life Reddit community r/WallStreetBets and how they managed to galvanize a legion of traders to bet against big money hedge fund owners through a video game company called GameStop.
I reviewed a documentary called Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets, which focuses on the Reddit users and how they earned “dumb money” in profits from taking out call options on GameStop (GME) shares. This time, Hollywood wanted to get in on the action of telling this story.
Sony Pictures has released the film Dumb Money featuring an all-star cast to tell the narrative of the YouTuber who was the catalyst behind it all. You may have heard of Keith Gill (Paul Dano), who also goes by the names DeepFuckingValue on Reddit and Roaring Kitty on Youtube respectively — although he is not a cat.
Keith is our protagonist in Dumb Money, which centers on his family, including his wife Caroline (Shailene Woodley) and his brother Kevin (Pete Davidson). While Keith has a respectable career working as a financial analyst at Mass Mutual making over $97K annually, he spends his evenings wearing a red bandana over his head, wearing a kitty T-shirt, and streaming live to share information about his positions in GameStop.
He has spreadsheets and a pretty dense formula for why he believes the stock is undervalued, and while some of his followers condescend and clown him in the chat, the majority of them are curious about his insights. This becomes incredibly apparent when they notice their positions move.
As a result, over the summer of 2019, Gill becomes a quasi leader in the GameStop movement through a Reddit community called WallStreetBets. It’s here where we meet Jennifer (America Ferrera), a nurse who is knee deep in debt. She doesn’t look like your average WallStreetBets user, and that’s what this film gets right. Many of the retailers featured in Dumb Money are not the “degenerate frat boys” you would expect to see. There are memes and toxic language to support that those boys exist for sure, but there are also women like Jennifer. Who aptly named herself StonkMom on Reddit.
Dumb Money introduces each character by indicating their net worth, which kind of tells a story of its own. Some retailers like Jennifer are already in debt. Other retailers like Marcus (Anthony Ramos), an employee of GameStop, only has a little over $100 to his name. Marcus ends up investing his entire net worth into the stock. Other retailers who have student loan debt like Harmony (Talia Ryder) and Riri (Myha’la Herrold) look to Keith Gill as a last ditch effort to help pay off those loans.
While the call options are getting those sweet tendies (an endearing term by retail investors to mean profits are being made), the hedge fund managers are not having a good time. The reason for this is the hedge fund managers are betting against the stock, meaning they are placing put options and want the stock to do down. There is a more technical term for this called “shorting.”
Dumb Money doesn’t get too technical with the details of shorting and what exactly a “short squeeze” is or even the ethics behind what these hedge fund managers were doing. However, to put it simply, they wanted to put GameStop out of business and by doing so they would earn a ton of money. Dumb Money “dumbs this down” for the audience, and I can appreciate that because getting too caught up in the details can be distracting and cause pacing issues. And at the end of the day, this film is a comedy and not a documentary, so I get that director Craig Gillespie’s focus is on the humor of the little guy taking down the big bad guys.
Speaking of the big bad guys, let’s name them. The film first introduces us to Gabe Plotkin of Melvin Capital (Seth Rogen), who owns more than 600,000 shares of GME. Then there is Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a wealthy hedge fund manager who is a bit of a mentor to Gabe. Finally there is Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman), CEO of Citadel who also had large positions shorting GME.
I don’t know much about the personalities of these men, particularly Gabe Plotkin, but Seth Rogen depicts him as a bit of a doofus who doesn’t quite know what he’s doing. One of the more fascinating and intriguing performances was that of Sebastian Stan as Vlad Tenev, co-founder and CEO of Robinhood. Robinhood, by the way, is an online brokerage that retail investors use to buy and sell stocks.
I’ve seen a lot of interviews with the real Vlad, and he always comes across as the kind of guy who is holding something back. His words are very scripted and his expressions are stoic. However, in this film Stan exposes an undercurrent of greed, deception, and narcissism in Vlad’s character.
One of the biggest controversies to come out of the GameStop incident was when Robinhood halted trading when the stock hit close to its all time high. As a result of this action, several traders sold out of their positions causing the stock to plummet. This is depicted in the film as well, and you see the impact that it has on each retailer respectively. Not to get too technical here, and the film doesn’t either, but the pay-to-order flow revenue model Robinhood uses was very deceptive versus what they advertised as “commission-free” trading on their app.
My only critique of Dumb Money was the scene with Elon Musk confronting Vlad Tenev. The scene was constructed in a way where it appeared Elon had a 1:1 conversation with Vlad, and that wasn’t the case. That confrontation took place in a public chat on Clubhouse. I remember because I was there! I can only guess maybe the production didn’t have clearance to use Clubhouse in the film.
The movie focuses heavily on GameStop because this is Keith Gill’s story and GME was his stock. However, other “meme stocks” went to the moon as a result of what was happening with retail traders taking on the shorters. Notably AMC, Blackberry, and Nokia were also stocks that had significant gains in call option profits riding off the coattails of GME’s momentum.
While these latter stocks are not mentioned in the film, it’s important to note the impact of how one guy’s faith in a company sent waves across the finance community, so much so that it got the attention of the U.S. government. Keith Gill, Gabe Plotkin, Ken Griffin, and Vlad Tenev, all had to testify at a congressional hearing.
Dumb Money is filled with humor, at times makes you mad at privileged capitalism, and may even surprise you at how easy money flows through markets. What stays with you is Keith Gill’s belief in something that became bigger than himself. He liked the stock and went all the way.
Dumb Money exclusively arrives in select theaters on September 15, 2023, and everywhere September 29.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online publication and multimedia space for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association and executive producer of the Black Girl Nerds Podcast.