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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room [DVD]
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It's just business...
This searing examination of the Enron accounting scandal reveals the psychology of greed and corporate corruption that facilitated the company's rise to power and also its fall. When Enron went bankrupt in 2001, the principals walked away millionaires - but later faced legal proceedings and jail sentences. Meanwhile, many employees and investors were left with nothing, not even their retirement savings. Shedding light on the new economy of the 1990s when predictions and book-cooking flourished without actual profits, the film shows how it was not Enron alone but a network of bankers, traders, and accountants who turned a blind eye to the company's clearly suspicious numbers.
Unbelievable footage of employees reveals unbridled greed, lust for risk-taking, and guiltless cheating, all while thinking they could never be caught.
A remarkable documentary which packages the events of the scandal into a cohesive story.
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The major characters responsible for Enron's downfall could not be interviewed for the movie because they refused to be. But Gibney gives us lots of insights into their leadership style with news footage, corporate audio and video tapes, a comedy skit performed in front of employees, C-Span clips, and a catalog of other visual and recorded material.
Incredibly, even NOW Texan Kenneth Lay, the son of a Baptist preacher and close friend of President George W. Bush (affectionately referring to him as "Kenny Boy"), and Lay's hand-picked CEO, Jeffrey Skilling, deny any wrongdoing. One segment reveals that Skilling's favorite book is "The Selfish Gene." The Darwinian manifesto presents a dog-eat-dog version of human nature. Money is the only thing that counts for Skilling. His ruthlessness coming from such a philosophy is demonstrated throughout his predatory career. Skilling's "mark-to-market" accounting tricks worked long enough to give him the hubris to believe that anything was possible for Enron because they were "the smartest guys in the room."
The documentary reinacts the suicide of Enron executive Cliff Baxter; exposes the magic tricks of CFO Andy Fastow, who had made millions for the company through shell companies that covered up Enron's staggering debt. One of the deceptively quiet raiders, Lou Pai, a right-hand man for Skilling, was a mysterious figure with a penchant for strippers -- who cashed in his stock options and ran off with hundreds of millions of Enron's dollars.
Whistleblower Sherron Watkins' interviews illumioates the inner workings of Enron's corporate culture. Indeed, the callousness and heartlessness of these go-getters are revealed throughout the documentary. Yet the most depressing part is that the Enron scandal could only have happened by so many accountants, lawyers, Wall Street traders, investment bank analysts, and government regulators looking the other way for years. They enabled Enron's corporate corruption to grow. They were too compromised to speak the truth in the face of power. As a result, millions of ordinary investors were royally screwed, and thousands of Enron employees lost their life savings.
On the down side, I would have liked to have seen more thoughtful probing into how the accounting fraud at the core of the Enron debacle was allowed to continue. We do get to see something of the underlying mentality involved: the merchant bankers and all the rest who just lined up to play their part and take their fee and keep their mouths shut. Indeed, it is in exposing the human dimension to the fraud that this documentary is at its strongest.
But one thing we could have seen more of is deeper probing into the institutional structures that facilitated all this. In particular, I would have liked to have seen much more of a sustained focus on the auditors. I single out the auditors for the simple reason that they are, after all, the ones whose nominal role it is to uncover accounting fraud and report it. That's the whole reason for having auditors in the first place.
Of course, the reality is that auditors are hired and fired by the very people they're supposedly monitoring. It's like going into the criminal justice system and being able to hire and fire not only your own defense team, but the police whose nominal role it is to investigate you as well. Understandably in such a system, prosecutions remain rare.
It is for this reason that I would say that the really fundamental problem is with the institution of auditorship itself. That was the case back in Enron's day, and it remains so today. Sarbanes-Oxley's solution of audit committees is a joke. It's just regulation for the sake of being seen to be doing something, despite the fact that you're really doing zip. It's a great employment scheme for corporate accountants and attorneys, but otherwise it just creates more paperwork. And if there's one thing that Enron should've taught us, it's that these people are superb at filing the right paperwork. So long as the auditors are hired and fired by the very people they're supposed to be auditing... Well, you figure out how that's going to end.
So as radical as this idea may seem to some in the business community, I would say that the real lesson of Enron is simply this: No, it's not okay for the people whose nominal job it is to report to the market on the integrity of a company's accounts to be hired, paid, and fired by the very people whose accounts - and integrity - they're supposedly investigating.
In fact, it's just plain stupid.
We don't have to stop at company accounts either. There's a deeper and more general principle here: it's not okay for people whose nominal job it is to provide "independant" advice to the market on ANYTHING to be hired, paid, and fired by people with a vested interest in the perceived status of whatever is being advised upon.
If you're wondering why any of this still matters a decade on, why Enron still matters a decade on, ask yourself simply this: Would we now be in the middle of the Global Financial Crisis if mortgage backed securities weren't rated by people who were ultimately being hired, paid, and fired by the very people who were selling those securities? If we'd connected the dots and had a blinding flash of the obvious way back in 2001, there's a lot of pain we could have avoided. Enron was a * H U G E * missed opportunity.
This is the kind of analysis I would've liked to have seen more of in this film. So I can't help but end this review where I began it. On the level of individual human beings involved, this was undoubtedly a fascinating documentary. Perhaps even a great one. But on the level of the broader institutional structures that allowed Enron to happen, it wasn't particularly insightful. It never really went beyond the rather uninspired observation that people just didn't do what they were supposed to.
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