Review: ‘The Smell Of Money’

Elsie Herring and Her Rural NC Community Take on “Big Hog” In Kate Mara-Produced Documentary

As Americans, we love our meat. Hamburgers, hotdogs, bacon, and everything in between are a part of our daily lives. Sure, it helps contribute to the obesity epidemic and plenty of other poor health issues that plague our nation, but we have almost collectively come to accept that as a part of our lives. The taste (and convenience of that taste) is just something that we have agreed is acceptable. However, we sometimes don’t think about the actual cost of our food.

There have been countless documentaries about the conditions of animals that are on various farms and how it’s inhumane as well as contributes to animal diseases, which then contribute to human diseases. However, not often do we get to explore the human cost of the mass-produced, corporate conglomerate-controlled hog industry, which is what director Shawn Bannon’s latest documentary The Smell of Money explores the communities (mostly poor communities of color) that have to deal with the environmental impact of this industry.

Exec-produced by Kate Mara and Oscar-winners Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, The Smell of Money spends most of its time with Elsie Herring, a citizen in Duplin County, NC whose family has owned their land for more than 100 years. After becoming free from slavery, her ancestors purchased land and have been living there with no issues for that time. However, in the late 1990s North Carolina saw a massive boom in their farming industry and many Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) started popping up all over Eastern North Carolina, and for the past 30 years the industry has transformed that region, and the people who live there believe it’s for the worse.

In addition to Elsie, The Smell of Money interviews a wide range of people in Rural North Carolina communities as they detail how their lives have been affected by the hog industry and their legal battles. Everyone from water testers, lawyers representing plaintiffs, academics, Robert F Kennedy Jr., Corey Booker, and countless others. One very interesting subject is Don Webb a former hog farmer who saw the error of his ways by saying “A good American won’t intentionally stink up another man’s home” and then dedicated his life to fighting back against the hog industry.

The Smell of Money explores the conditions of these “factory farms” that in addition to the inhumane treatment of the hogs on these farms, it spends a great deal of time exploring the (lack of) hog waste treatment on these farms. Instead of using the environmentally friendly (and more expensive) way of cleaning and disposing of hog carcasses and their waste, they instead opt to save a few bucks by creating “lagoons” to store the waste in as well as “recycling” the wastewater for fertilizer for their farms. However, this causes problems for the people who live near these factory farms as there is not only a permanent stench in their communities, but sickness in the residents in those communities that’s often ignored.

And not often do many documentaries explore environmental racism. It’s another weird thing we collectively have just accepted. Corporations that pollute often do their polluting in communities of color. Poor black, brown, and Indigenous people don’t have a lot of political power or their own lobbyists to advocate on their behalf. That’s why The Smell of Money spending so much time with Elsie Herring and many activists is so refreshing. We get to see on a local level the damage the hog industry does, but we also get to see the activism, organization, and resilience of the people on the ground level as they wage a decades-long fight for accountability.

The Smell of Money did reach out to Smithfield Foods (the corporation that ran the factory farms), but of course, they declined to comment. In fact, only one hog farmer was even brave enough to be the subject of the documentary. So as a result, the film is very one-sided regarding what is wanted to discuss. But truth be told, this issue is very straightforward and doesn’t need to be a “both sides” issue.

The Smell of Money is also a very organic documentary as it follows the subjects in real-time. Many of the plaintiff’s court cases are filmed as well as their reactions and frustrations. Another aspect of the film that really hits hard with it being a real-time filmed film is that a few of the interview subjects succumb to illnesses they developed because of the hog industry and pass away. Because we get to spend some time and learn about these people, it’s heartbreaking when they pass away, and you can get just as emotional as their family members are. The Smell of Money also gets impacted by the COVID pandemic as many of the interview subjects remind the camera crew that the Swine Flu outbreak was a result of factory farming in Eastern North Carolina so they weren’t surprised that a global pandemic could happen.

The Smell of Money is an emotional, honest, and wonderful exploration of people often neglected and taking it upon themselves to fight for their rights and the rights of their community: to exist. They aren’t asking for anyone to lose their jobs, they just don’t want to die and dedicate their lives to improving their communities, and that’s one of the worthwhile causes.

The Smell of Money is currently available in select theaters and On Demand.