In 2007, Patrick Lovell was living his American dream. As a senior producer on the nationally syndicated show Home Team, for which he traveled the country to surprise deserving homeowners with makeovers, Lovell made enough to purchase his first property, in Park City, Utah. Then the production company behind Home Team, a deep-pocketed real estate development company, went bankrupt. Production on the show ceased immediately. Then the US economy burst, in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Lovell was out of work and rattled; an attempt to refinance the family home ended in foreclosure. It was as if a switch flipped, and overnight Lovell’s life inverted from “my American dream to my American nightmare”, he told the Guardian.
Lovell and his family joined the millions of Americans cast adrift by the financial meltdown of September 2008 – families whose pensions evaporated, whose life savings disappeared, whose homes, some owned for decades, were suddenly foreclosed. Though the Great Recession and subsequent bank bailout dominated the news and launched a virtual cottage industry of explainers on what went wrong, for Lovell, little analysis of the catastrophe made sense on the ground. “I couldn’t figure it out. Nothing made sense,” he said. Instead, he internalized cable news narratives zeroing in on personal responsibility, blaming homeowners for supposedly taking out loans they couldn’t afford. “I always thought if you were lucky enough to get a loan, you should be responsible enough to pay it back,” Lovell said. He blamed himself. He was the failure. Then he started digging.
That research – six years of collecting interviews and synthesizing news analysis, over a decade of “reading like my life depended on it”, became The Con, a five-part documentary series co-written and produced by Lovell as a demystifier of the crisis in its broadest, most damning scope. Lovell’s questions started vague and personal – why had this happened to him? How did it come out of nowhere? Who was responsible? – then sharpened and expanded with time. What spurred the proliferation of sub-prime mortgages? Who financed these sub-prime lenders, anyway? Why was there no federal criminal prosecution of the most flagrant financial abuses?
Lovell and co-writer and director Eric Vaughan treated the 2008 financial crises like a criminal investigation, unraveling one homeowner’s story to the rot at the center of a whole financial apparatus. Hence, a six-hour series that plays like a college course on the toxic, greed-inflated web precipitating the Great Recession. The whole thing, Lovell admitted, “went way further than I ever thought”.
It was important to Lovell to start small, on the level he knew best: individual foreclosure. The Con argues that the entire jig – a jargon-riddled, obfuscatory tangle of cause and effect still confusing even when broken down in such pop-explainer films like The Big Short – could be unclouded by the tragic story of one woman. Addie Polk was a 90-year-old widow when she shot herself in the chest rather than face an eviction visit from a sheriff in October 2008 (she died six months later). Polk had lived in her home, in a majority black and working-class neighborhood in Akron, Ohio, since her husband purchased it for $10,000 in 1970; when he died in 1995, the house, fully paid for, went to her name.
Polk’s case made national headlines as an embodiment of the cruelty of America’s foreclosure epidemic, which riddled Akron with empty homes and eviction notices, and the scourge of predatory lending. Over the years, Polk had taken out several loans on her home; the last one, from a California-based mortgage behemoth, Countrywide, was for $45,620 in 2004, when Polk was 86 and signing for a mortgage to be paid off in 2034. (In The Con, both Lovell and her church’s reverend make the case that these loans were probably procured without her knowledge, using a forged signature, a practice apparently far more common than you’d ever hope to know.)
The Con examines Polk’s case as a textbook outcome for a series of overlapping predatory lending practices: the targeting of elderly and minority citizens by sub-prime lenders to increase sales and profit on a cycle of foreclosures; straw buyers and identity theft to lock unsuspecting lenders into doomed agreements, some with rates that unexpectedly balloon over time; and the manipulation of appraisals, which allowed blatantly unsavory or crooked agreements to pass muster. With first-person testimony from local Akron police officers and such deeply embedded legal figures as the former Ohio attorney general Marc Dann, former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau adviser Prentiss Cox and former Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley, The Con explains how all of this decimated neighborhoods such as Polk’s. (Her hometown of Akron was one of the few to actually charge and convict the crooked operation under the federal racketeering statute known as Rico).
What at first seemed like isolated outbreaks of mortgage fraud in 2007 were, The Con argues, an epidemic of morally bankrupt, highly lucrative financial practices underlying a flashy house of cards. Later episodes expand the net (at times literally panning a corkboard of pictures webbed by yarn) from Polk’s intersection with mortgage fraud, to mortgage fraud’s origin in the savings and loan financial crisis of the 1980s, to the housing market bubble, to Wall Street’s investment in the housing bubble’s junk mortgages, to pensions tied up in mortgage-backed securities – all of which ultimately funded an obscene bonus culture amid the top ranks of wealthy firms, who made off with hundreds of millions and little to no accountability.
The comprehensiveness and interconnectedness can seem intimidating – think the wonkiest parts of The Big Short, but in greater detail as part of a larger tapestry beyond Wall Street – but the point, said Lovell, is to empower rather than overwhelm. You don’t have to be a finance person to trace what happened; there isn’t that much complicated about greed. “It’s not rocket science, it’s corruption,” said Lovell.
“Everybody knows the system’s rigged, everybody knows the system’s corrupt, but it’s the difference between common knowledge and specific knowledge,” said Lovell. It’s one thing to know the banks were too big to fail, that Wall Street was driven by greed, that the housing market collapse was avoidable. It’s another thing to see, over and over again, examples of false signatures on fraudulent loans drummed up to meet sales quotas, to hear testimonies of bonus policies predicated on ignoring clear red flags. To hear, time and again, how a bank perched on an air bubble of junk securities made someone hundreds of millions. To rewatch the sheen of respectability perpetuated in the Super Bowl commercials of the sub-prime pioneer AmeriQuest, which went belly up in 2007.
Lovell’s series is heavy on the detail, if low on hope for the greed-incentivized financial world’s capacity to change. “What we’ve created is a system that is an incubator and factory of deception,” said Lovell, in which it follows that you’d get a president “who’s made his entire career on deception”.
Years into the journey of untangling what, exactly, went so awry in the heady pre-recession days, Lovell no longer blames himself, or people like Polk, or anyone; the incentive to drift off a path with no guardrails into an open range of profit originates far, far up the chain – one that can, with time, be followed into something resembling clarity. “You’re not stupid if you don’t know what you don’t know,” said Lovell of swimming past the alphabet soup of financial terms in interpreting the crash a decade ago. “It’s a failure of institutions, and a failure of our system.”
The Con will be released in virtual cinemas in the US on 7 August with a UK date to be announced