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This GME exposé doesn't quite get to the moon
One of the craziest stories of the last few years (which is pretty astonishing given everything that has happened), is 2021's GameStop stock (GME) story — which saw retail investors fight cash-flush financial institutions on Wall Street at their own game (CNET has a full explanation) — was only overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic and a global civil rights revolution, yet it contained many of the same themes: class disparity, corporate greed, disastrous attempts at PR damage control. HBO Max's Gaming Wall Street, a two-part, two-hour documentary, attempts to explain what happened and how it happened, and give voice to those it happened to. It's a lot of complex ideas to cover in such a short amount of time — you could spend two hours explaining what a "short squeeze" is and newbie traders would still be confused — and as an exhaustive report of it all, Gaming Wall Street comes up short, but it tries.
The first thing you should know about Gaming Wall Street is that the two episodes, which both hit HBO Max on Thursday, March 3, are wildly different. The first episode is for the apes at r/wallstreetbets, the subreddit celebrating high-risk stock trading where the GameStop revolution was born, as it covers the boom in retail investors, warts and all. Gaming Wall Street briskly blankets different investors involved in the situation, from a divorced dad who lost so much in the 2008 financial crisis and YOLO'd money into GME to a homeless couple who faced discrimination from wallstreetbets for being poor and bought at the top of the GME rise, to understand the psyche and culture that became a meme- and money-making machine. Everyone had the same idea; it was time to stick it to Wall Street by trying to screw over hedge funds since hedge funds had been screwing them over, and if they could make a few bucks at the same time, why not?
It's lighthearted and mostly entertaining, plumbing the depths of one of the most insane places on the internet, populated by the smartest and dumbest people (sometimes both at the same time) on the internet, as well as how its influence spilled over into the real world as investors tried to tip the scales. Veterans of Wall Street and financial experts are also interviewed, adding both hope that retail investors can level the playing field and despair that it's all futile because Wall Street has so much money that its shady dealings are impenetrable.
It's a strange lead-in for the second episode, which ditches almost all insight into the retail investor culture in favor of the questions around investment app Robinhood's decision to kill GameStop stock by greying out its "buy" button, and how naked shorts (another financial topic that could be its own doc) are an epidemic of illegal activity on Wall Street. There's nothing here that anyone who has followed the story doesn't know — it's mostly a recap of events and an explanation of some terms peppered with people saying what might have been going on behind the scenes — but it will once again piss you off how these financial institutions get away with everything while ordinary people pay the price. "There's no conspiracy theory in here. It all just happened. They won," hedge fund vet John Fichthorn says, putting the nail in the coffin. And while Gaming Wall Street ends by saying that an educated investor is the best weapon against Wall Street corruption, the overall tone is one of defeat.
Access could have really made Gaming Wall Street better. The perspective is all from one side — the retail investor side — creating a one-way narrative. Obviously, the evildoers in this narrative, like Robinhood, Melvin Capital, and Citadel, said no to participating, which never gave director Tobias Deml a chance to catch them in a lie. More devastatingly, the absence of wallstreetbets folk hero Keith "I am not a cat" Gill, better known as DeepF*ckingValue, is glaring. He's still featured prominently via clips of his YouTube videos, but to not get his perspective on the entire debacle chips away at the authority of the whole documentary. The best thing about Gaming Wall Street is who it did get: Kieran Culkin, Roman Roy himself, narrates the docuseries, and he's the perfect mouthpiece. Culkin, spouting expletives and talking sh-- as though he's recording ADR for Succession Season 4, sounds like what the wallstreetbets guy would sound like.
Gaming Wall Street may have been hurried to our screens — another documentary, GameStop: Rise of the Players, was released in January 2022 — meaning the story wasn't told as it should have been. It's rare to say this about anything on streaming these days, but it probably could have been longer to go further into the myriad topics involved. Or at least, it should have been either a fun look at wallstreetbets' culture, a fascinating state of mind with a hint of everything from future activism to online mob justice, or a stark exposure of the alleged crimes of the financial institutions. As it is, the two episodes grate against each other, not telling one story but two very different ones. If the first episode is the loud and obnoxious kegger, the second episode is the neighbors calling the cops. This is a story that deserved more.
Premieres: Thursday, March 3 on HBO Max
Who's behind it: Tobias Deml (director)
For fans of: Rocket emojis, wallstreetbets
How many episodes we watched: 2 out of 2