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Money for Nothing, a new documentary, screens at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday Dec. 4.

The Federal Reserve Bank is a favorite whipping boy for both left- and right-wing conspiracy theorists, its role in manipulating currency — and (by extension) managing the economy — the source of endless controversy. Calls to ‘audit the Fed’ have been heard from both the Ron Paul libertarian right and the Alan Grayson liberal left, but such an audit would still be unlikely to assuage the frenzied palpitations of Alex Jones and others convinced that America’s central bank is nothing more than a tool the New World Order uses (alongside fluoridation, vaccinations, and chemtrails) to maintain its control over us.

Consequently, I anticipated Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve (a new documentary screening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday Dec. 4) with some trepidation. Watching the film until the end, I kept waiting for the penny to drop: when would narrator Liev Schreiber reveal the awful truth about our reptilian overlords inventing one fiat currency to rule them all?

Of course, even if our reptilian overlords somehow aren’t responsible for it, the dollar remains a remarkable invention. Backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government (at least until the day President Cruz decides a default will serve the best interests of the country), the dollar does its job because people all over the world believe those rectangular pieces of green and black paper have value.

Money for Nothing (which, sadly, can’t resist name checking Dire Straits, but thankfully does so only once) tells the story of the Fed, now quietly celebrating its 100th anniversary. Established in 1913 as a response to repeated economic panics (that of 1907 then being the most recent), President Woodrow Wilson imagined the Fed as a Bank of England-style stabilizing factor for the American economy, but embellished with a Yankee twist – twelve separate ‘independent’ reserve banks intended as a sop to nervous conservatives.

The film suggests that, in general, Wilson’s plan worked reasonably well throughout its inaugural century. The Fed’s record, however, has two substantial blemishes: the first stemming from its failure to take action amidst a sea of bank failures immediately prior to the Great Depression; the second in the decade prior to the crash of 2008, when Chairman Alan Greenspan’s anti-regulatory, free money chickens finally came home to roost in spectacular fashion.

Featuring interviews with an assortment of relatively little known financial experts – the most recognizable being former Fed chairman Paul Volcker – Money for Nothing points the finger at Ayn Rand disciple Greenspan for a multitude of sins, while acknowledging that he presided over a boom period in the years prior to Bear Stearns, TARP, and the housing bubble. It’s a richly detailed and fascinating story that flies by surprisingly quickly – even though it does leave out the crucial bit about the Fed’s role in assassinating JFK, who intended to replace Federal Reserve notes with silver certificates.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...