What movies treat cash with realism?
January 2, 2016 12:09 AM   Subscribe

You have seen them, the movies where the protagonist or infamous hero scores the cash. I won't bother with links because they are so ubiquitous. Fiction is only good if it is believable. In the denouement the lucky character walks off the screen, bag in hand.

This is SO unsatisfying to me. I enjoy while watching, but afterwards... meh. The knowledge that our hero cannot make effective use of a bazillion or even a million in cash ruins it for me. A person can't bring a sack of bills to a real estate closing. There is only so much useful stuff one can buy in person. It can't be banked without suspicion. How can he even give it away? Walking off into the sunset is a one star movie.

Give me some ways to enjoy these movies again. How does the "good guy" spend all that dough in a useful way? How does he buy his sweet old mom a house? How does he give to charity? How does he travel? Is it just me? Or does the impossible nature of cash spoil the story for you too? Paint me some day after scenes that allow me to still enjoy the movie. If you have seen any movies that portray realistic life-after-cash please refer me.
posted by woman to Media & Arts (38 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
The protagonist of "The Thomas Crown Affair" talks about teaching his love interest to "move money around and hide it" when they plan to run away together after a heist. "The Wolf of Wall Street" also shows the protagonist opening overseas accounts to be able to secure his funds and support his lifestyle.
posted by alchemist at 1:00 AM on January 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

In Goodfellas, Deniro's character is acutely aware of how suspicious big spending after the Lufthansa heist will look to the authorities.

posted by ootsocsid at 1:43 AM on January 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Office Space addresses how difficult it would be to hide or launder $300,000 accidentally stolen from one's employer.
posted by ootsocsid at 1:58 AM on January 2, 2016 [9 favorites]

You launder it. Or you just keep it around as a cushion for smaller (but still fun) purchases that can be made with cash or cash turned into a cashier's check via a bank.

If you start a cash business, you can launder it, although it takes time. Typically, you get the seed money from somewhere legit-seeming and start a cash business, and then just claim that you're getting much more cash business than you're actually getting. (I know this from Breaking Bad, I am not an expert, don't try this at home).

Alternatively, you could go to NYC, where plenty of places will take enormous sums of money from you in exchange for enjoyable experiences, with no questions asked and no records kept. Sublet an apartment, pay up front, no one cares where you got the money, and you're in a world-class city with money to burn. (This is what I would do! And I'd spend all the money at movie theaters! It would last me years!)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 1:59 AM on January 2, 2016 [22 favorites]

So my friend's dad did actually bring a suitcase full of cash to a real estate auction and used it to pay the deposit (Sydney, 10 years ago, so about $50k). The real estate company was suspicious, but in the end chose to accept it rather than let the deal fall through.

Maybe they checked the provenance of the money thoroughly afterward though? (It was totally legit: the guy was just kind of eccentric).
posted by lollusc at 2:59 AM on January 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

It seems to me that this is what casinos are for. Turn a few thousand into chips or slot credits, play for a bit, take your winnings or losings to the cage, get clean cash, hit another casino, repeat. Maybe it's not possible now with eye-in-the-sky surveillance and real-time drop/handle stats, but I doubt the count room matches individual note serial numbers to each box.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:29 AM on January 2, 2016 [14 favorites]

Not a movie, but a series: Breaking Bad spent a lot of time/scenes on the hassle and liability of having a lot of cash. Trying not to spoil, but one character pays a middleman to launder his money while another wants to avoid the fee and does it himself.
posted by mama casserole at 5:07 AM on January 2, 2016 [17 favorites]

This always bothered me as well, particularly in 21 where ostensibly Ben thinks he is going to hand Harvard Medical School $350,000 cash for tuition with no questions asked. I've spent about 4 minutes researching this, so of course I'm an expert and the short answer is what you suspect: you don't often see thieves tossing out fat stacks of cash like it's no biggie. Money needs to be somehow laundered, either through a casino (Casino), olive oil importers (The Godfather), law firm (The Firm), nail salon (Breaking Bad), car wash (Breaking Bad), taxi stand (Narcos), waste management (The Sopranos), bank (Scarface), etc.

In all these movies and tv shows, people do enjoy the money UNTIL they get caught. But money laundering is always involved.

You're onto something. Someone should make a movie where the thieves just go nuts spending cheddar (and donating to charity) and nobody blinks an eye because it looks like it hasn't been done all that often.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:26 AM on January 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

A person can't bring a sack of bills to a real estate closing.

Why would you think this? Of course a real estate closing can be done for cash. In fact, that's an ideal transaction. I sold my first house to a cash-paying buyer. Yes, it's reportable on a Form 8300 to the IRS because it's a cash transaction over $10,000 but there is no legal or practical reason it cannot be done.

I think the underlying problem with your question is that it assumes a bugaboo about cash. The problems involving money in Breaking Bad and the Goodfellas's Lufthansa heist was not that there was a lot of *cash* but that there was a lot of *money*. Whether Walter White's drug money came in cash or ETFs would not change the fact that he had a lot of income from an unsavory source. That is the purpose of laundering money - to make the proceeds of crime appear to be earned from legitimate business activities, not to convert cash into non-cash. Also, the concern in Goodfellas was not money laundering so much as "don't spend a lot of money right after a big local robbery because it draws attention and people might put 2 and 2 together".

The kid in 21 could have paid for his medical school in cash. I wrote checks each semester to pay my college tuition. He wasn't going to drop off several hundred thousand at the bursar's office on the first day of school.

To give an example of where a large amount of non-cash presents problems, Heat involves processing a large amount of bearer bonds through a fence played by Jon Voight.

If you are interested in depictions of money laundering in movies, Joe Pesci gives an explanation of his process in Lethal Weapon 2, Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption, and Chin Han (talking head on the tv) in The Dark Knight.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:54 AM on January 2, 2016 [16 favorites]

Due to various weird personal and business circumstances, I've seen lots of high-value cash transactions. Even with the reporting requirements, "laundering" money is extremely easy, in the sense of disrupting traceability. It's actually very common for people to use cash to buy houses (if I recall it's like a huge percentage of such transactions), cars, businesses, stocks and bonds, simply drop off at a bank. Now, if you were already under surveillance such that you were handling tagged bills, that works differently. But if you're Hero Protagonist and you stumble on a bag of cash, you can spend it pretty easily, and if you're Evil Protagonist, you already know that you're just gonna deposit it in chunks as part of your cash-heavy front business (car wash, Chinese restaurant, Pachinko club, etc.).
posted by odinsdream at 7:11 AM on January 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

In the sadly forgotten John Sayles written film, Breaking In, a big plot point is that the Burt Reynolds character gambles with his stolen money and even though he loses most of it, what he leaves with is defendable as gambling winnings.
posted by octothorpe at 7:15 AM on January 2, 2016

I'm waiting for Masterminds to be released, for a (hopefully hilarious) depiction of what happens when people with questionable taste, no money-spending impulse control, and stab-your-partners-in-the-back group dynamics come into a load of cash. A "realistic portrayal of life-after-cash", but not the Happy Ending you asked for.
posted by achrise at 8:17 AM on January 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Breaking Bad also has many scenes of characters spending big stacks of I'll-gotten cash, but they're paying unsavory types who know the cash is ill-gotten. This may not fit so well with your hypothetical hero, but I suppose you could still by a house for mom this way.
posted by ejs at 8:57 AM on January 2, 2016

You may love A Simple Plan, where these inconvenient facts about cash drive most of the plot.
posted by lunasol at 9:14 AM on January 2, 2016 [13 favorites]

"The Way of the Gun" treated it very realistically. Kidnapping film where the ransom is paid in a realistic volume of cash - several very large duffel bags. It ended up being a plot element, i.e. how to get out of there with their lives and the cash.
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:46 AM on January 2, 2016

Although reading again it sounds more like you're talking about what to do with the money. Laundering is usually the answer, i.e. finding reasonable ways for you to create false income without working. You usually end up losing a large percentage of the money in the process. An example might be to make a fake company that sells fake stuff to fake people (or people you know) without any money changing hands. It creates an explainable source of income.
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:48 AM on January 2, 2016

Is it just me?

Well, no, but . . . . you're kind of asking for stories to expand beyond their "natural" range. In any given story, the usual structure is that there's a Goal the hero needs to accomplish (steal the money, stop the bomb, throw the One Ring into Mt. Doom, etc etc), and the story is about how the hero overcomes obstacles in order to reach that goal. Achieving that goal is the end of that particular story. What happens after the hero has achieved the goal would be a different story.

So from a sort of "how stories work" standpoint, I think a lot of people (if not most people) simply aren't bothered by this, and a lot of writers don't worry about the "after" details - or if they do, they consider it in the next story about those characters.

It can't be banked without suspicion.

Arguably, you can, in some countries - see "Offshore bank" - and thanks to the bank secrecy laws in those countries other countries will find it difficult to impossible to seize your money or prove that you owe taxes on that money. And once you've got a bank account, you no longer have to deal with cash.

I'm sure it's more complicated in real life, but IMO for a lot of stories the vague hand-wavey assumption is that the heroes wind up in a country with more lax bank regulations and/or greater bank privacy laws, maybe in a resort kind of area where no-one questions the use of cash, and spend the rest of their days sipping fruity drinks on the beach. (And probably under a new fake identity (which now they can afford good ones), so the person sipping drinks on the beach is never connected with the money that disappeared back in the U.S. or wherever.)
posted by soundguy99 at 10:17 AM on January 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Is this not the premise of this movie?

(May not actually be realistic portrayal at all)
posted by dismitree at 11:05 AM on January 2, 2016

Lethal Weapon 2 explained a common money-laundering scheme. I distantly recall that a jury in a court case was remanded from seeing the movie because the explanation was spot-on for what the defendant was accused of.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:58 AM on January 2, 2016

Oh, and don't forget the movie Casino, where huge amounts of cash and jewels are simply stored in a safe deposit box, the contents of which are kept secret from the bank. You can dip into that all you want, provided you don't raise too much suspicion with frequency and spend patterns.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:05 PM on January 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

In The Shield series the Strike Team is at some point investigated for, amongst other things, their heist of the Armenian mob's "money train". Shane Vendrell is in particular trouble because his legit transactions with a paper trail (mortgage, car payment, etc.) actually eat up all of his and his wife's disposable income leaving nothing for stuff like food and other daily cash transactions, which they were covering using his share of the stolen cash.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:10 PM on January 2, 2016

There's a plotline in Season 5 of The Wire which explains how a high-level drug dealer launders the piles of cash he receives from day-to-day operations.
posted by Ndwright at 12:46 PM on January 2, 2016

I have a passing interest in true crime stories. I have seen TV shows about actual criminals, such as bank robbers, that talked a bit about how they handled it.

On the one hand, some of them got away with it for years. On the other hand, they were often living in some incredibly crappy trailer or camped in a swamp and living off the land or similar. It occasionally resulted in partying until they were caught. It more often resulted in their lives being driven by the need to lay low for years and years, so low that I have trouble understanding why they committed the crime.

But that was because they committed a crime. Not because you cannot spend scads of cash without anyone noticing or blinking an eye at it. One story I saw was about how some drug dealers were so financially successfully, they had trouble laundering their money. They became local celebrities by going around and giving cash away to little old ladies who could not pay their mortgage and stuff like that.

IIRC, in the 1930s, one notorious bank robber was not caught for ages in part because he did the same sort of the thing. The entire town basically knew he was an infamous bank robber and kept their mouths shut because he was casually generous with the money during The Great Depression.

If you travel a lot and are routinely interacting with people who don't know you that well, it can be incredibly hard for other people to tell how much money you are going through (or where your money comes from or whether or not this amount is in line with your income...etc). You can stay fed for cheap by cooking from scratch or you can be blowing through the dough eating at nice restaurants daily. Most people will have no real idea whether you are spending $10/day to stay fed or $100/day to stay fed. People also do not necessarily readily know if you are staying at expensive hotels or couch surfing or sleeping in your car. They also don't readily know if you paid cash for that hotel stay or used your debit card or ran up debt on your credit card for this trip that you will struggle to pay back.

You might try watching some true crime shows, like Cold Case Files, or reading some true crime articles/books. You might be surprised by what you learn.
posted by Michele in California at 2:31 PM on January 2, 2016

In Sicario a low-level 'employee' had the task of making daily $9,000 cash deposits (thus avoiding mandatory reporting to the IRS)* at their local bank branch. One suspects that there were multiple people similarly employed, and that the accounts could be held by disguised LLCs (and the like) that own property, "legitimate" businesses, etc..

*Do not try this at home. Or abroad. Or anything even close to it.
posted by argonauta at 2:40 PM on January 2, 2016

My grandparents were numbers runners. They ran the business for decades, bought a house and cars, and educated their children. They laundered the money through a guy who had an auto parts store. They would give this guy s sum of money every week, he'd cut a paycheck to my grandpa, minus federal, state and municipal taxes. Grandpa always told me, "you can get away with crime so long as you pay your taxes. Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion." They also bribed cops.

The point is, real criminals, guys who support families and are repo subtle, will do the prudent thing.

I'll admit though, I do think about this a lot. Renting stuff instead of buying will take care of a lot of hassle.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:49 PM on January 2, 2016 [8 favorites]

This is the premise of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men: a man finds a bag of drug money, and then has to decide, in the words of the novel, in what order to abandon his life.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:51 PM on January 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Another sort of larger point that I'm thinking of as I read some of the above answers is; a lot of the laws and infrastructure that make it difficult and/or suspicious and/or noticeable to buy things with cash or just to suddenly have a bunch of money with little explanation are really pretty new. If you look at the Treasury Department's History of Anti-Money Laundering Laws website (anti-money laundering laws being the main mechanism for things like banks being required to report cash transactions over $10k), you can see the Bank Secrecy Act in 1970, and then nothing until Congress starts passing a whole series of new laws every few years from the mid-80's on. (Clearly driven by the Wars on Drugs and/or Terror.) And I think there are at least a couple of even more recent laws/treaties not on that page that address cooperation with countries hosting the "offshore banks" I linked to above.

Plus there's the whole "growth of the Internet" thing, which is what's allowed a major rise in use of credit & debit cards (and a corresponding reduction in cash purchases), and allowed banks and law enforcement to more easily exchange information and cooperate across state or country borders. And the Internet is really only 15 to 20 years old.

All of which is to say that what seem like insurmountable problems now, in 2016, for dealing with large sums of cash or for having a plausible explanation for sudden wealth that wouldn't catch the attention of the authorities, were likely much smaller or different problems for Ruthless Bunny's grandparents, or for the mobsters in Goodfellas (which takes place from the 50's through the 80's), or for the characters in No Country For Old Men (set in 1980), or for Joe Pesci in Lethal Weapon 2 (set & made in 1988.) So I think that's something you might want to keep in mind as you watch movies or read novels - while "wandering into the sunset with a bag of cash" has been around forever, for an awful lot of that time it was far less of a problem than it might be today.

IOW - Paint me some day after scenes that allow me to still enjoy the movie. Think about when these stories were made or the time they're set in, and consider whether you are unintentionally applying current standards for "Geez, they'd never get away with that." Depending on the story, maybe they could very well get away with that, even for relatively modern stories.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:34 PM on January 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

The Danny Boyle movie Millions deals with a pair of young boys who happen upon a big bag of money and have to decide what to do with it. It's a funny and mostly optimistic movie that deals in magic realism more than gritty realism, but it specifically deals with spending a lot of money without getting caught.
posted by sleeping bear at 8:11 PM on January 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Everyone else so far has covered the reality of how money laundering works, but I'll add this:
Whenever I deal with people who sail, I am astounded by the amount of cash that regular folks carry on their boats as they go through the Eastern US coast and through the Bahamas or through the Mediterranean. So much of the whole community still uses cash without batting an eye.

So when I come up on a plot point that is going to be hard to accept, I always write in the back story that they must have a 30 or 40 foot sailboat that they are going to be leaving on.
posted by Tchad at 6:38 AM on January 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

You can walk into a post office with a wad of cash and buy a cashier's cheque. This isn't even that suspicious. You can then use a cashier's cheque to pay for almost anything, including medical school.

I feel pretty confident that, if I came into $100 million in cash, I could quit my job and live the life I want to live without ever arousing the suspicion of any government entity.
posted by 256 at 2:31 PM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, keep in mind that Walmart has a check cashing service largely aimed at people who do not have a bank account. These are generally people presumed to be too poor to bother with keeping a checking account. Their webpage lists a cashing limit of $5000.

I think a lot of financial stuff happens that isn't part of the banking system where every transaction is recorded and identified with a particular person, a lot more than many people with mainstream/normal lives would think. This isn't even necessarily about crime related funds or funny business. Some people are kind of paranoid and just do not want other people knowing their business. If, for example, they come from a persecuted group of people, their paranoia may not be due to a mental health issue. It may be because they have first hand experience with people being out to get them in some sense or another.
posted by Michele in California at 2:41 PM on January 3, 2016

I am probably a little over-suited to answer this question because, while not quite being a tinfoil hat wearer, I don't like the degree of tracking that is possible when I use debit/credit cards and so I do about 80% of my total transactions in cash. When people learn that I deal in cash this often, they think it's a little weird, but the people I am actually dealing with never think that the individual cash transaction is weird.

I also paid my rent in envelopes full of cash for over ten years (across four different landlords) with a total tally of one landlord one time saying that the practice was a little strange. And a couple of the places were very nice.

And if you up and move to Mexico, this scenario only gets easier. And your money goes further.
posted by 256 at 3:31 PM on January 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

"And if you up and move to Mexico, this scenario only gets easier. And your money goes further."

Except for a few problems - one, you have to get the cash across the border. If they don't search you, OK - but you're supposed to declare cash in excess of $10K. Two - you have to guard the cash, and if you stay in one town, you'll become known as the foreign person who pays for everything in U.S. currency... you'll stand a good chance of becoming a target.
posted by jzb at 4:59 PM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Getting cash across the border is trivial. As for the other concern, well, yes.
posted by 256 at 5:08 PM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

But no, under even minimal thought, that is not a concern. Mexico is big. There are a LOT of currency exchange shops in D.F. that will exchange thousands of USD without blinking an eye. You can either live in D.F. or take a bus there once a month to exchange all the currency you need. And, once you have pesos, paying in cash is the norm rather than the exception in rural areas.
posted by 256 at 5:19 PM on January 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, see my question from a while back.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:14 PM on January 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

There is some very good information upthread.

I used to work for a bank. Even though I worked in the data centre and had no contact with money or customers, the bank required all employees to take a course in how to spot money laundering. This article explains the process of money laundering pretty well. (I apologise for the clickbait site.) The three stages of money laundering are:

1. Placement - The launderer puts the money into a legitimate financial institution. Placement is the riskiest, because large quantities of cash are conspicuous, and financial institutions are required to report cash deposits over 10,000 USD.
2. Layering - The launderer moves the money around to disguise where it came from.
3. Integration - The launderer takes the money out of the system in a way that looks legitimate.

The impression that I got was that money laundering probably works more successfully if the launderer works slowly and takes lots of very small steps. I imagine that effective money laundering must be kind of tedious. I also got the impression that money laundering costs money... there are fees for wire transfers and money orders, shell companies require administration, couriers need to be paid... less money comes out at the end of the laundering process than went in to begin with.

In answer to the original question, you might want to watch Layer Cake. Money laundering is illegal and bad things happen, right?
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:09 AM on January 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

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