Analyzing Movies & TV’s Depictions of 1% Investing: Billions, Industry, Dumb Money & More

There are many different ways characters can accumulate wealth on screen, but the most entertaining types often seem to be the most risky. From investments to gambling (which really aren’t that different after all, it seems) characters on screen often make mega bucks by taking big bets and winning.

“You know they call us traders ‘gamblers’? The entire world’s a casino fueled by a giant debt bubble and computer driven derivatives.” Billions

And while these were once mainly reserved for the wealthy, tech has allowed them to become more accessible to regular people. Decades of flashy stories have hidden away some of the darker truths about these avenues to wealth – or just dressed up even losses as wins – leading to unrealistic expectations in real life. So, how close to real life are the portrayals, actually? Let’s take a deeper look at these stories, plus the one major part of the equation that they often leave out…

“There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat.” Margin Call

Investing Magic On Screen

Film and television have long used the idea of investing of any kind as a bit of a magic trick to make money appear – even just an offhand mention of a character working at a hedge fund or as an investment banker is enough to justify pretty much any extravagant lifestyle. It’s the industry most closely tied to the idea of wealth, and everyone around them knows it.

“CEOs, CFOs, investment bankers, corporate raiders, hedge funders, ax murderers…” Hustlers

Films and shows dealing directly with the finance world often bring us in via an audience surrogate who is also new to things, and so are still learning the ropes (allowing us to learn the important buzzwords along with them.) These characters are usually new but incredibly eager to succeed at all costs – and as luck would have it, they get their big break. This is the moment they’re able to show that they do have what it takes to succeed (while also raking in a whole bunch of money in the process.) This is, of course, a lot of fun to watch – the rollercoaster of finance, with such huge quantities of money being slung around like it’s nothing can be a little nauseating, but seeing the main character capture that huge win makes it all feel worth it. But this can also set people up with some rather unrealistic expectations of what it’s really like to enter the world of finance. Sure, at major banks and funds you’ll likely be pulling in six figures even in an entry level position (and even that can vary wildly depending on what kind of investing you do,) but it’s by all accounts probably not going to be a terribly exciting time. More recent finance media – post 2008 – has started to be more honest about this, showing the dark reality of the kill-or-be-killed environment, where being ‘special’ doesn’t actually mean anything because there’s always a bigger fish willing to take you out to save themselves.

“These are your packets, you will see what accounts you’re responsible for, today. I’m sure it hasn’t taken you long to understand the implications of this sale, on your relationships with your counter parties and as a result… on your careers.” Margin Call

But, whether they’re glamorized or more true to life, these stories about an underdog getting their big moment are so enticing because for so many of us, it feels like that’s the only way we’d ever be able to really have a chance at attaining real wealth.

“People like us, born at the bottom. Where would you put our percentage chance of ever making that top quintile? It’s about 3%.” Industry

These stories are comforting because they sell the idea that there is possibly some way we could make our way into this world and not only stand a chance but succeed. But, of course, the real world odds aren’t so favorable (which we’ll unpack more in a moment.)

If the focus isn’t on a promising young upstart, finance movies and shows usually go in the total opposite direction and focus on a titan of industry who is at the top of their game (and ready to cut down anyone who might try to mess with their money.)

“I’m going to grind his bones into f*cking dust and I’m going to enjoy it.” Succession

These characters are often used to show how money – and the immense pressure that comes with always trying to figure out ways to get even more – corrupts one to the very core of their being.

“What have I done wrong, really? Except make money and succeed?” Billions

But as removed from the “normal” world as they might seem to be, these stories often work to make them relatable through their backstories – almost always stories of coming up from nothing, which is what lit the fire within them to never be without again.

“My father worked like an elephant selling electrical equipment until he keeled over at 49 from a massive heart attack and tax bills.” Wall Street

In addition to the wealth itself, another thing that often makes these stories so appealing is that no one ever really seems to lose

Even When They Lose, They Win

Every character needs to have something to lose to raise the stakes in their story, and in films and shows about finance this ‘something’ is often a nearly unimaginable amount of money.

“You’re on a roll, kid. Enjoy it while it lasts, ‘cause it never does.” Wall Street

Money and success often become an addiction – they don’t just want more, they need it. Their entire sense of self is tied up in not who they are as a person or what they do, but solely in how much money they’re bringing in. They’re willing to do anything to raise their gains by even a fraction of a percent.

“I can promise you that I am spiritually and emotionally and ethically and morally behind whoever wins.” Succession

And they’re also willing to hurt anyone else to save their own wallets.

“And you’re selling something that you know has no value.” “We are selling to willing buyers at the current fair market price.” Margin Call

Often, whatever consequences these characters face (if there are any) pale in comparison to the destruction that’s left in their wake. But as far as they’re concerned, capitol is king, and anything that’s likely to bring them more money – and thus power – is fair game.

“For those of you who’ve never been through this before, this is what the beginning of a fire sale looks like. I cannot begin to tell you how important the first hour and half is gonna be. I want you to hit every bite you can find: dealers, brokers, clients, your mother if she’s buying.” Margin Call

These parts of these stories are usually much less fun to watch because they touch on a much more uncomfortable truth: that this is in fact how the hierarchy of the world is set up, the incredibly wealthy people at the top do usually get to skate free at the expense of everyone else, and the idea that we could ever really climb our way to the top in that world is vanishingly small.

“We’ve gotta start acting like those Wall Street guys. You see what they did to this country? They stole from everybody; hard working people lost everything, and not one of these d*uchebags went to jail.” Hustlers

But, that doesn’t stop people from trying…

Real People, Real Consequences

After being inundated with these kinds of stories about how “greed is, for the lack of a better word, good” (even if the moral of the story is supposed to be that it’s bad) it’s not surprising that people latch on to the idea that, sure, it’s a long shot, but someone has to make it, so why not them.

“Are you behind on your credit card bills? Good, pick up the phone and start dialing! Is your landlord ready to evict you? Good! I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich!” The Wolf of Wall Street

The explosion of trading apps and online resources means that people don’t need to get degrees or work at a firm to learn about or start investing in a major way. This has led to some feeling like the playing field has been leveled, ever so slightly.

“The big firms have such a big advantage in terms of technology and information and just sheer wealth, there’s no hope for the little guy anymore. Or there was no hope. Maybe now there is.” Dumb Money

2023’s Dumb Money chronicles the true story of Keith Gill and scores of other people who came together on the subreddit r/WallStreetBets to buy GameStop stock in the hope that it was their way to beat Wall Street at its own game. We see how people were so deeply pulled in by the idea that this was finally their big break, their turn to cash in on the stock market just like they had heard about traders doing for years. And, mostly centrally, people were drawn in because it was a group of regular, everyday people working together – specifically not Wall Street bigwigs but instead a bunch of “little guys” finally about to get their share.

“I wouldn’t take investment advice from a guy in a cat shirt.” “Oh, okay. Who do you take investment advice from?” “I don’t have investments. And if I did, I’d listen to, like, a banker.” “Just the way they like it.” Dumb Money

For some, the investment was lucrative, but for many it ended up just being empty hope.

One of the most difficult parts for normal people looking to get into investments and trading, is that the stock market isn’t as easy to read as many experts like to pretend.

“Number one rule of Wall Street. Nobody - and I don’t care if you’re Warren Buffet or if you’re Jimmy Buffet - nobody knows if a stock is going to go up, down, sideways or in circles.” The Wolf of Wall Street

As much as everyone would like to pretend they can divine where it will go next, no one really knows or has any real control over it (or, at least, they aren’t supposed to…) It’s not a sure thing, but a calculated risk, which is why it’s so often related to…


Gambling. On screen, gambling is often relegated to the fun times and bright lights of Las Vegas, where characters roll the dice and win big. But in stories that focus on the gambling, we begin to see the darker underbelly.

“Last year I made 125 million dollars. I don’t even know what to do with my money anymore. I have nobody to spend it with, nobody to enjoy my life with anymore. It’s horrible! ” Uncut Gems

Gambling and investing are, at their core, rather similar: betting large amounts of money on something that you’ve convinced yourself is a sure win to more money without any real concrete proof. But gambling is often framed as more lowly and a bad use of money, while investing is framed as intelligent and smart (the main difference being that investors are generally betting other people’s money.) The exception is often with high stakes card games where the element of skill (and large amounts of cash) come into play.

“He played tight, didn’t give a lot of action and always got his money in good, which means he was running the odds. In other words, he was playing poker and the others were gambling. And he won.” Molly’s Game

Where in the finance world, characters often make it big through luck or brute force, in gambling stories it’s often a matter of outsmarting the house.

“It was in prison that I learned to count cards. What separates blackjack from other games is that it’s based on dependent events, meaning past affects the probability in the future.” The Card Counter

But we also see how that doesn’t work forever. Like with the high rollers of the finance world, these stories often show how gambling becomes an addiction that begins to consume one’s entire life, leading to bad choices and often unhappy outcomes. Gambling is the perfect distillation of our very human hopes of having our lives changed – through luck or skill – in one fell swoop. And in real life, it’s started taking over seemingly everything. Sports betting in particular has seen a huge boom in recent years, as people are desperate for a way to change their circumstances and maybe even make money doing something they already enjoy.

“This is me, this is how I win.” Uncut Gems

But the reality is that people are losing a staggering amount of money chasing this dream.

The Secret: A Safety Net Of Money

Successful characters love to wax poetic about how they got so super rich because of their innate skill and understanding of the world, but the reality is that the biggest secret to making money is… already having money.

“The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.” Hustlers

The ultra-wealthy can play fast and loose with their money and take huge risks – and thus possibly reap huge rewards – because they have all of that money to put in to begin with.

“If you’re successful enough, people think you can do anything, and then you start to believe it, too.” Billions

And they have the comfort of knowing that even if they lose one bet, they’re not going to lose everything – they have money stashed away in offshore accounts and tied up in assets all around the world. They might take a big hit, but it won’t leave them destitute.

“At least as a rich man, when I have to face my problems, I show up in the back of the limo, wearing a $2000 suit and a $40,000 gold fuckin’ watch.” The Wolf of Wall Street

This creates a safety net that not only allows the already rich to take bigger risks, but also fail upward.

Regular people, who aren’t supremely wealthy, don’t have this kind of safety net, and so can often get stuck with a much larger proportion of their assets tied up in a single deal that can totally wreck their lives if it goes south. For characters in this kind of situation, their choice often feels like it’s about something larger.

“It’s not about the money.” “The stock market isn’t about the money?” Dumb Money

But regardless of what’s driving them, the result is often the same.

Why we’re drawn to these kinds of stories

It’s no surprise that we’re drawn to these kinds of stories on screen – they’re flashy and, if not necessarily fun, still thrilling.

“Walk away.” “I should. But, what’s the point of have f*ck you money if you never say f*ck you?” Billions

And they tap into that part of us that wants to imagine that there is one big break we could get, one big bet we could take that could totally change our lives and elevate us to the point where we don’t have to worry about anything but making more money.

“You can’t look at a number like that on paper with your name next to it and still doubt yourself. That’s not logical.” Industry

And, of course, we hear so often about how these titans of finance are essentially controlling our lives and the entire world, so it makes sense that we’re interested in trying to get a peek at what’s really going on behind all of those closed doors.

“Let me put it this way: I’m standing in front of a burning house, and I’m offering you fire insurance on it.” The Big Short

Plus, investing is often a part of our regular, everyday lives, just in generally less exciting ways, like with 401ks and IRAs.

But in the same way we’ve seen a shift in how investing is portrayed on screen, it seems that there’s been a bit of a real life shift in interest away from the career due to its high pressure and low quality of life. Not even the mega payouts are enough for many people now, who are looking for new avenues to secure wealth without having to give their entire lives over to their jobs.

While it’s obviously understandable to get pulled into wanting to jump into these so-called “easy” paths to wealth and success given how terrible things are for everyone who isn’t ultra-rich, the real way we’ll be able to level the playing field is by changing the system so that it doesn’t only reward the most devious schemers while leaving the rest of us holding the bag.

“Stop going for the easy buck and start producing something with your life. Create, instead of living off the buying and selling of others.” Wall Street