‘The Con’ Exposes ‘The Largest Conspiracy of Lies in the History of the World’
“The Con,” a new five-part docuseries, examines the 2007-08 global financial crisis and the greedy bankers and politicians who got away with (figurative) murder.
Ninety-year-old Akron, Ohio, widow Addie Polk shot herself in the chest in October 2008 as sheriff’s department deputies were knocking on her door to serve a foreclosure notice—a horrific turn of events that came to symbolize the financial crisis that brought the country to its knees, costing people their homes and their livelihoods. Polk’s distressing story serves as the framework for Patrick Lovell and Eric Vaughan’s The Con, a five-part docuseries that weds woeful personal testimonials to an exhaustive investigation into the interconnected causes of that economic calamity. It may not be as jokily accessible as Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning The Big Short, but it makes up for a lack of wink-wink comedy and star-power flash with comprehensive detail. It’s as exhaustive—and infuriating—as exposés come.
Now available in virtual cinemas, The Con is a deep dive into financial-sector instruments and operations that’s too dense for traditional binge-watching. Consumed in installments, however, writers/directors Lovell and Vaughan’s inquiry covers just about every conceivable base with regards to the 2008 home mortgage meltdown—here dubbed “the largest conspiracy of lies in the history of the world” by former Office of Thrift Supervision regulator William K. Black. With Lovell as its on-screen guide, it begins with Polk’s tale as a means of examining the first part of its saga—namely, the countless bad mortgages Countrywide, Ameriquest and its ilk sold to borrowers on the basis of inflated property appraisals, falsified applications and agreements, and other fraudulent maneuvers.
The basic ruse was simple: targeting minorities and the poor in particular, brokers persuaded people to sign high- or adjustable-rate mortgages they didn’t need and/or couldn’t afford (often for more than their property was worth), or simply used straw buyers to secretly purchase mortgages on clients’ behalf, and then earned hefty commissions from such deals. If borrowers couldn’t keep up with their payments, refinancing came into play—a kick-the-can process that kept individuals paying bills, and brokers reaping financial windfalls. The problem was that when nationwide housing prices stagnated, brokers could no longer refinance those bad loans, and defaults skyrocketed.
On a micro level, that meant people suddenly had to face the terrifying prospect of homelessness, and The Con patiently lays out this situation before casting it as a single piece of a much larger puzzle. When mortgages went south, the entire American economy turned sour, because companies had been selling their bad mortgages to the big Wall Street banks (Lehman Brothers, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America) that had funded their loans in the first place. In turn, those institutions had been combining their bad loans into packages known as mortgage-backed securities (MBS), which were subsequently further combined into derivatives products known as collateralized debt obligations (CDO) and credit default swaps (CDS). Then, the banks had courted investors—say, local pensions—for those derivatives, even though they knew they were rife with rotten mortgages destined to fall apart. For the same reason local brokers (and their underwriters) committed fraud—namely, because they feared they’d otherwise lose out to competitors—so too did regulatory agencies rubber-stamp these ticking-time-bomb derivatives with AAA ratings, thus supplying seals of approval that convinced everyone they were reliable and safe.
Through a wealth of talking-head interviews, The Con delivers a step-by-step explanation for how such a system works, the historical context that allowed it to materialize and flourish, and the various villains that exploited it for their own gain. Those would be CEOs such as Angelo Mozilo (Countrywide), Roland Arnall (Ameriquest), Lloyd Blankfein (Goldman Sachs) and Robert Rubin (Citigroup), who pushed their firms to gorge on bad loans, since even if they were eventually going to collapse, they boosted current corporate-revenue figures—and CEO bonuses were tied to present-day gains, not future disaster. The Con thoroughly and damningly contends that everyone was in on this conspiracy because—akin to a game of hot potato—it allowed for personal bonanzas while shoveling responsibility for inevitable misfortune onto future generations.
And if you’re wondering where government bigwigs were in all of this illicit madness, well, Lovell and Vaughan elucidate that they were all complicit, both because banks were huge contributors to political campaigns (Arnall was George W. Bush’s biggest donor during his 2004 re-election push), and because the “revolving door” meant that officials who championed deregulation wound up benefiting from such stances when they quit public office and moved into lucrative financial-industry jobs.
Overflowing with maddening tales of criminal malfeasance and dismissed whistleblower warnings (from, among others, Richard Bowen, Michael Winston and Gary Aguirre), The Con is so wide-ranging and persuasive—not to mention bipartisan, taking equal aim at the greed-driven administrations of Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama—that it’s too bad its actual filmmaking is so bland. The series’ formal shortcomings are most pronounced during its initial two installments, when overdone dramatic recreations are rampant and Lovell is routinely seen writing Dear Diary-esque journal entries at a café table while we hear him narrate his prose. Even when those devices become more infrequent, there’s a flatness to its compositions and editing that, no matter the insights dispensed, make sitting through the proceedings feel a bit textbook-ish.
At the same time, though, The Con’s clinical approach provides lucidity and depth—two qualities aided by Lovell and Vaughan’s use of helpful charts, diagrams and other graphical touches (like a detective’s board decorated with pictures connected by string) to make their complicated concepts comprehensible. Archival news reports and congressional-testimony videos additionally allow the series to make its arguments from a variety of angles. Simply put, the entire corrupt structure is laid bare, and censured, with impressive clarity and forcefulness, revealing how a handful of elites employed deception, bribery and political influence to rig the mortgage industry to their own (and their underlings’) benefit, damn the consequences for the average American.
The fact that no CEOs went to prison for their fraud, that the trillions in government bailouts only aided the banks themselves, and that deregulation continues anew under President Trump, makes The Con both a depressing portrait of the rich and powerful getting away with (figurative) murder, and a warning about impending disaster. No matter which side of the political aisle you’re on, it’s an eye-opening must-see.