Pegged to the 2008-09 Great Recession, "Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve" is a disconcerting documentary on the central bank's influence over America's past and present economic crises. After breezing through a crash course on the Fed's formation a century ago and its roles in the Great Depression and the inflation of the 1970s, the film scrutinizes the Fed's contributions to the late-1990s stock-market bubble and the housing bubble of the 2000s.
A chorus of talking heads blames the recession on former Fed chair Alan Greenspan and his protégé and successor, Ben Bernanke, saying that both preferred damage control to regulation of the financial sector. But the two appear only in archival footage, which isn't quite an opportunity to defend their policies. By contrast, the film almost fawns over Paul Volcker, who chaired the Fed in the 1980s and whose policies to suppress inflation contributed to interest rates rising to 20%.
Writer-director Jim Bruce, a veteran film editor who has also dabbled in financial newsletters and short trades, has serviceably streamlined a sprawling topic into something accessible, succinctly illustrating the causes and effects of the Fed's evolution. He's laboriously pieced fragmented sound bites from various interviewees together into coherent sentences as if they came in a Magnetic Poetry kit. Thumbing through this flip-book of experts — some seem better credentialed than others — can be a blur, but their cautioning about a Greek-style government debt bubble is hard to ignore.
"Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. At Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.