'Inside Lehman Brothers': Film Review | DOC NYC 2018

Courtesy of DOC NYC
Fascinating accounts from the inside.

Jennifer Deschamps' documentary recounts the stories of several former Lehman Brothers employees who turned whistleblowers.

Not all of the victims of Lehman Brothers' shady business practices were investors and borrowers. As Jennifer Deschamps' documentary vividly illustrates, some of them worked inside the company. The film tells the stories of several former employees whose professional lives were ruined when they attempted to raise alarm bells about what they were privy to. Although more of a footnote to the tale rather than a definitive account, Inside Lehman Brothers is a worthy addition to the growing roster of documentary and dramatic films dealing with the financial crisis that may rear its ugly head once again in the near future due to the current rollback of industry regulations. The film recently received its world premiere at the DOC NYC festival.

Among the figures profiled is Matthew Lee, a former Lehman senior vice president who enjoyed a rich income and prominent status in the financial world. His troubles started in 2008 when he began noticing serious financial irregularities in the company's practices that he detailed to his higher-ups in memos. Rather than be rewarded for his diligence, he was eventually let go , the official reason being "corporate downsizing." After his essential banishment from the financial industry, he radically changed his lifestyle, living a nomadic life, riding his motorcycle throughout Australia and various remote locations.

Lee tells his story for the first time in the film, providing piquant details that make it fascinating. He vividly describes how the company's CEO, Richard S. Fuld, was a mystery man so intent on his privacy that he rode to his office in a private elevator. "Very few people ever saw Dick Fuld in the flesh," Lee comments, ruefully.

Nor is Fuld heard from in the film, except in archival footage, including a private video message to his employees so gleefully vicious and repugnant it would make Gordon Gekko blush. Fuld emerges as the chief villain in the film; he never suffered serious harm as a result of Lehman's bankruptcy (he did lose a fortune, but seems to be doing just fine). We're informed in the epilogue that he's still in the financial business.

The film also introduces us to Linda Weekes, Sylvia Vega-Sutfin, Coleen Columbo and Cheryl McNeil, who worked at a Lehman mortgage subsidiary in Sacramento. Years before the housing crisis erupted, they began warning superiors about the inherent dangers of subprime mortgages and, like Lee, they suffered for their integrity. They were subjected to various forms of harassment, including physical and sexual, and eventually hired a lawyer and described Lehman's financial malfeasances in a press conference. Their vivid accounts in the film of how their lives took serious downturns after they turned whistleblowers prove a harrowing cautionary tale.

Also heard from are Oliver Budded, a former Lehman-employed lawyer who describes how the company's executives found underhanded ways to enrich themselves, and Anton Salukis, who headed the legal firm that produced a comprehensive report documenting the causes of the firm's bankruptcy.  

With its relatively narrow focus on the stories of only a few individuals, Inside Lehman Brothers is perhaps not the best cinematic starting point for those not already familiar with the company's history. But the film serves a valuable purpose by bringing to light the stories of those insiders who vainly attempted to make their voices heard.

Production: ARTE G.E.I.E., Intuitive Pictures, KM Productions
Director: Jennifer Deschamps
Producers: Ina Fichman, Frederick Lacroix
Director of photography: Pierre Taillez
Editors; Myrian Milent, Lessandro Socrates
Composer: Medhat Hanbali
Venue: DOC NYC

75 min.