American Casino Getting Rave Reviews

Andrew and Leslie Cockburn By Mike Colpitts

American home buyers didn’t have a clue they were buying mortgages from bankers and mortgage companies that were like mad gamblers at the crap table during the real estate boom. As the tables turn with tens of thousands of homeowners filing lawsuits against bankers for defrauding them, the first motion picture to chronicle the subprime lending fiasco plays on screens across the nation.

American Casino has opened to packed audiences of movie-goers. The documentary chronicles the speculation and manipulation of U.S. financial markets after 2000 when Congress deregulated trading securities on Wall Street that produced the crisis.

Interviewing Wall Street refugees and victims of the scandal, American Casino captures the recklessness of the house of cards that nearly took down the American economy. The film, co-produced by Leslie and Andrew Cockburn was filmed over the first ten months of 2008, before the crisis broadened to include conventional mortgages producing foreclosures at all levels of society.

Wall Street wizards were as nervous about revealing their identity as mobsters in the U.S. Marshall’s witness protection program, but came forward to explain how the crisis developed. The 89 minute film puts a face on many of those who made fortunes in the lending scandal targeting minorities with no income verification loans, risky adjustable rate mortgages and convoluted lending language in a pile of paperwork that confuses even the bankers who prepare it.

Images from American Casino Foreclosed houses in a scene from the documentary.
Photo Credit: Phil Geylin

“Cogent, sharp and infuriating, American Casino moves from the exploiters to the exploited, taking to the streets of Baltimore to find communities damaged by the venality and greed of distant strangers,” said reviewer Ray Pride of Newcityfilms.com.

The filmmakers build a case against those who manipulated government deregulation, making individual fortunes creating the nation’s worst financial crisis since at least the Great Depression.

Lending professionals who work on commission made every risky mortgage possible to millions of homeowners now either facing the possibility of foreclosure or who have already had their homes foreclosed.

“This was very much top down,” said co-producer Andrew Cockburn, whose accomplishments include a 1991 PBS documentary on Iraq entitled The War We Left Behind. White House officials, including President George W. Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson pushed for more mortgages to be made at the urging of lawmakers, new home building companies and regulators to increase the number of mortgages made to the lower income.

But the plan to increase the number of homeowners, which reached an all-time high during the real estate boom back-fired, triggering the worst financial crisis in more than a generation. “The bankers’ eagerness to issue more of these securitized instruments to make more money put pressure on to put out more money into the mortgage lending sector,” said Cockburn.

Cockburn doesn’t see mortgage borrowers as being at fault. “Some might have been at fault,” he said. “But given the complexity of the mortgage documents and a limited understanding of the system they (borrowers) put their faith in professionals.”

The bankers and mortgage brokers who made the free-wheeling mortgages were out to make all the money they could before the system came tumbling down. “They followed each other and they were all so greedy. They have a new business model in banking. Instead of depending on good credit standards, they made their decisions based on getting paid.”

The documentary is running in limited engagements in theaters in major urban areas, and the DVD will be released in October. A preview with show times may be found here: www.americancasinothemovie.com