Narrated by Kieran Culkin in the same potty mouthed, cheeky millennial voice as Roman Roy from Succession, Gaming Wall Street (HBO Max) is a two-part docuseries that examines the furor over the 2021 short selling of GameStop stock — the little guy “retail investors” who banded together in Reddit forums to grab back buying power from power mad, money hungry hedge funds, but found out the hard way that the story was bigger than just one stonk.
GAMING WALL STREET: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: “The stock market is an enigma,” Kieran Culkin says in voiceover over a nighttime shot of lower Manhattan. “Deceptively complex, but also simple. It’s a parallel universe.” And suddenly a neon, laser-cut reverse image hovers over the buildings, streets and bridges of the city.
The Gist: The stock market’s reputation as an all-powerful money-making machine for faceless hedge funds, giant corporations, financial industry professionals, and other exclusive gatekeepers took a roundhouse punch to the chin in January 2021. As the first episode of Gaming Wall Street lays out, that’s when a cross-section of independent players, many of them unified under the banner of the subreddit r/wallstreetbets, pushed the stock of video game retailer GameStop into the stratosphere. (Or “to the moon” in the Very Online slang of these groups.) At least for a little while. But a stock that increased in value by a factor of 30 was going to make a lot of regular everyday people rich if they just kept pushing, and remove cash from the pockets of hedge funders at an alarming, satisfying rate. As Culkin puts it in the voiceover, it was an “uprising by a bunch of people from the Internet who said ‘Let’s take these motherfuckers down.’”
Of course, the financial news networks, the shirtsleeved Jim Cramers of the world, had no real metric for this. “There is concern about unsophisticated investors,” one guy grumbles in a supercut of the reporting on the squeeze. And that gets to the main gripe of the “retail investors,” as the independents are known in the industry. They don’t see themselves as “unsophisticated” just because they aren’t making stock trades for some financial titan. People like a group of sarcastic twentysomethings interviewed in California, Kaspar, Austin, and Matt. Or Joshua Merrill in Las Vegas. Or Jason Howell in Tallahassee, who’s still bitter over the public fallout from the 2008 financial crisis and all of those Too Big To Fail bailouts. Tayler Wilburn, whose net worth crested just as the GameStop stock crashed, is functionally homeless in Olympia, Washington. And yet, he felt empowered by his participation in the squeeze. “From my car, on borrowed wi-fi, I can be an extremely tiny part of screwing over Wall Street.”
Gaming Wall Street periodically departs from interviews to present animated sequences that explain the mechanics of short sales, of the stock market itself, or of something called the “GameStop short thesis.” All of this is narrated by Culkin with no shortage of swear words, and coupled with the doc’s manic chronicling of the online retail investor space, a place full of as much hard financial data as it is .gifs, memes, spastic messaging, and an adoration for “loss porn,” Gaming feels very much like something more of Internet or podcast culture than it does stodgy documentary culture.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? The 2017 documentary The China Hustle explored the chronic short-sell activities of a group of Chinese companies that operated freely on the US Stock Exchange. The Wall Street Code (2013) looked into algorithms and their use in high frequency stock trading markets. And the Netflix documentary series Dirty Money puts the spotlight on all the ways Big Dollar sticks it to the average person.
Our Take: “I remember seeing photos of these guys drinking champagne, laughing. Always in the back of my head, I was like ‘If there was a way to ever take these assholes down, let’s take them down,’ because they destroyed a hell of a lot of lives.” r/wallstreetbets user Jason Howell’s anger toward the financial industry that just keeps churning, and how it broke so many regular folks in the wake of the 2008 crash and resulting twenty-nine-trillion-dollar mistake, gives some solid ground to Gaming Wall Street. It gives root to the narrative, a narrative that can occasionally feel like a printout of a particularly hyperactive online comment field. And while the graphic style employed in the doc is sharply rendered, it too feels influenced by the creep of online humor. There’s knowledge to be gained here about the nefarious doings of naked short sellers and whispers of collusion between outfits like the stock trading app Robinhood – with their totally free trades, allegedly a friend of the little guy – and a gigantic money machine like Citadel Securities. But the surface vibe of Gaming Wall Street is one of casual podcast crosstalk, like it’s leaping off the screens that sit lighted and murmuring with stock data in the background of so many Gaming interviews.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: “I don’t view this as whistle-blowing. It’s that this needs to be brought to the surface” Wall Street veteran Tobin Mulshine says of the rampant and illegal practice of naked short selling. “It’s not just one firm, two firms, three firms. It’s all the firms that commit capital. And the bank did not care.” And then a hammer, in the form of a graphic. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.” Part two of the doc awaits.
Sleeper Star: The gold star probably has to go to the twentysomething guy who doesn’t actually say anything in part one of Gaming Wall Street, but whose pals relate how it was his idea to write “Suck my nuts, Robinhood” on a skywriting banner as a message of defiant protest.
Most Pilot-y Line: “There is this, you know, sentiment of people being pissed off at hedge funds,” retail investor Joshua Merrill says of the hubbub over the GameStop short selling. “It’s about class disparity. It’s about income inequality. It’s about finally being able to win one for once.”
Our Call: STREAM IT. If you loved the mix of harsh language and financial market minutiae that defined The Big Short, then from its narrative to its visuals, you’ll dig on Gaming Wall Street’s whole entire groove.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges