Thursday, August 03, 2023

The Highest of Stakes

Richard Heart (real-name Richard J. Schueler) is either a financial prophet, if you ask his allegedly cult-like investors, or a fraudster, if you ask the SEC, who filed suit against Heart four days ago for defrauding investors with unregistered securities. That development is far too recent to appear in this documentary. It is certainly a dramatic coda, but it probably did not surprise his detractors or his loyalists. You would not expect to find much middle ground when it comes to appraising Heart/Schueler, but directors Patrick Moreau and Grant Peelle manage to find it in The Highest of Stakes, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Heart is a flashy guy character who parlayed his success predicting crypto booms and busts into the launch of his Hex Token. Unlike other tokens, Hex also acted as a sort of savings certificate, allowing investors to “lock in” their tokens for a pre-set period, for a varying rate of return. However, like pyramid schemes, earlier investors earn a greater return than newer arrivals, which Heart transparently admits. However, the constitution of the so-called “Origin Account,” which takes the lion’s share of fees and penalties, remains a little murky.

The thing is Hex performed really well, at least until Mikey, the film’s representative retail investor, jumped in with both feet. Then it starts to tumble, giving Mikey’s wife Ramey ample opportunity to say “I told you so.”

Frankly, the first forty-five minutes or so play like a Hex infomercial. However, Moreau & Peele enlist two academics, Kelly Richmond Pope the forensic accountant and Lamont Black the currency futurist, start pulling at the threads of the Hex story. Black turns out to be more skeptical than Black, which makes them sort of a good cop-bad cop tandem.

Hex might be an okay investment, despite surely taking a hit this week, but it isn’t money. Neither is Bitcoin, at least not yet. To date, no crypto meets the textbook definition of money: a medium of exchange, a measure of value, and a store of value. Heart never claims Hex does any of these things. He just suggests it will make his followers rich. However, viewers should be skeptical, considering how many talking heads compare him to Donald Trump and Bernie Madoff.

Highest of Stakes is a rare bird among contemporary documentaries, because it lets Heart make his case and then challenges his assertions. That should not make it so unusual, but sadly it does. It should be of interest to Charles Payne’s viewers, but there is no question it has been somewhat outpaced by current developments. Recommended for eventual streaming, The Highest of Stakes opens tomorrow (8/4) at the Regal Union Square.