Leo Melamed rose from a child refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland to become the chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which he built into a dominant global market by expanding from commodities (pork bellies, corn, wheat) into financial futures (currency, stock averages, gold).
His son, Jordan, followed him onto the exchange floor and rode high enough to drive a Lamborghini and have a Playboy playmate as a girlfriend, then gave it up to head to Hollywood. His first feature film as a writer-director, “Manic,” with the debuts of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zoe Deschanel, took Sundance by storm in 2001.
The documentary “Futures Past” picks up the story of the Melamed father and son and the exchange in 2007. Leo Melamed’s 1987 innovation, a computerized exchange called Globex, has become so efficient in the era of high-speed Internet that the “open outcry” system of floor trading is imperiled. Jordan Melamed’s film career has crashed, and he’s making this documentary as a last gasp.
A shoot he expects to take a few months instead stretches over eight years, thanks to conflicts with his father, his personal financial crisis and the global financial collapse of 2008.
We’ll never know what film Jordan Melamed would have made if he could have completed it in 2007, but the documentary that concludes with the final day of open outcry in 2015 is a fascinating look at the American dream as it rises and falls like a stock index and ripples through one Jewish family.
We see Leo Melamed through his son’s eyes: a business titan who rides the front edge of his industry’s waves even as they swamp friends and colleagues and who can’t or won’t understand his son.
We also see the 2008 recession through Leo Melamed’s eyes. “I went to sleep last night in America. I woke up in France,” he complains about bailouts (the Chicago Mercantile Exchange survives without any). “We’ve nationalized everything.”
He should be proud of his son, whose film skillfully balances the personal and the public.
(Atlanta Jewish Film Festival screenings: Feb. 1, 7:50 p.m., Perimeter Pointe; Feb. 2, 11:45 a.m., Springs Cinema)