Best Documentaries that Inspire Living A Better Life

There’s something about a really good documentary that just inspires me to live a better life. Peeking into the world of the über rich, learning the effects of foods on our bodies, seeing images of what we are doing to our planet, and opening the doors of middle-class family homes to see hyper-consumption in action – these are some of the best documentaries!

How the Other 1% Live

The Queen of Versailles

This 2012 Sundance award-winning film directed by Lauren Greenfield is not only my favorite documentary, but it is without question my favorite movie. I’ve watched this film approximately one billion times and hope to watch it one billion more. A former beauty queen, an arrogant billionaire, a nanny living in the playhouse, what’s not to love? It gets better every time I watch it!

The Queen of Versailles starts as a documentary about Jackie and her billionaire, time-share developer husband David Siegel. They are building what turns out to be the largest single-family home in the United States. But during filming, the recession hits.

This movie is captivating on so many levels. David’s approach to finances reminds me of Robert Kiyosaki author of Rich Dad Poor Dad in that he leveraged debt to make more money for him. However, when the banks came calling for their money it backfired causing stress and grief. This is an extreme yet powerful example of why I aim to be debt-free.

Then there’s Jackie: beautiful, intelligent, outgoing, kind, and yet completely out of touch with the real world. Going to McDonald’s in a limousine, asking the name of her driver at the car rental window after, shopping on a “budget” at Wal-Mart yet filling up multiple carts with gifts for their kids (most of which they already own).

Jackie longs for attention from her much older husband, who appears to treat her with disdain and openly admits to viewing her as another of his dependents. She has no clue about what is going on financially, or that Versailles falls into foreclosure.

Looking back on this movie today, it’s also painful to see their oldest daughter Victoria who stood up to her father knowing that in 2015 she died from a drug overdose.

The Queen of Versailles is only 100 minutes, yet spans years of the Siegel family’s life. Best – movie – ever!

In addition to inspiring me living debt-free, this movie also reminds me of the importance of communicating with your spouse about money.

Living Healthier Lives

Photo by Brooke Lark

Forks Over Knives

The American diet has changed dramatically over the course of the past 50 years. “Convenience” and processed foods have taken over our nation. We are consuming more than double the amount of meat and dairy, and over three times as much sugar than we did before WWII. Not surprisingly, incidents of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes have also skyrocketed. Experts in the fields of biochemistry and medicine shed light on how we can live healthier lives (and without taking any pills).

This 2011 documentary is 96 minutes. Drs. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn were both raised on farms and started their careers believing that animal products were an important part of a healthy diet. But after years of evidence to the contrary, they each concluded that whole food, plant-based diets “can reduce if not eradicate” illnesses such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and possibly cancer.

A number of documentaries about healthy eating came out around the same time. Forks Over Knives is my favorite because it presents data and is encaptivating without oversensationalizing or showing any gruesome or graphic images.

Forks Over Knives inspired me to eat minimally processed foods and eventually commit to a vegetarian lifestyle.

Super Size Me

This 2004 Oscar-nominated film made writer, director, and human guinea pig Morgan Spurlock famous. For an entire month, he ate nothing but food from McDonald’s. More interesting (but not surprising) to me than the effects on his weight and his health was how he felt emotionally: fatigued and depressed.

At the beginning of the movie I started to crave fast food – by the end I realized why I don’t eat it.

If you are looking for inspiration to consume less fast food, this is the documentary for you!

Saving the Planet and Reducing Waste

Photo by Dustan Woodhouse

Wasted! The Story of Food Waste

Anthony Bourdain narrates this documentary about upcycling food to keep it out of landfills.

The average American spends $1,500 a year on wasted food. Sadly, 1/3 of food is wasted. Even more depressing is that for every pound of shrimp caught, 6 pounds of bycatch (i.e., other species) are discarded.

In the USA, 90% of food scraps end up in landfills. Keeping food out of landfills is important because it takes a long time to decompose (a head of lettuce can take up to 25 years to decompose in a landfill) and it produces methane.

The EPA’s food waste pyramid is something I hadn’t heard of before. This movie talks about each step in the pyramid: feed people, feed livestock, create energy through anaerobic digestion, then create nutrient-rich humus (compost).

If you were hoping it’d be a movie about getting drunk, don’t worry. They also talk about making toast ale with upcycled bread waste!

Wasted! inspired me to start composting.


Bottled water is not only unnecessary for most people, but it may be ruining our planet. This movie tells the story of how companies bottling this water are taking this natural resource away from some people who don’t have any alternative sources of water. And companies are making billions of dollars.

When I walk through the grocery store, nearly every cart has bottled water. The irony is we live in an area where two major brands of bottled water are sourced!

If you are fortunate to have access to clean, potable water, this film will make you think twice about buying it in a plastic bottle.

Tapped inspired me to stop buying bottled water.

Stopping the Madness of Overconsumption

Photo by Onur Bahcivancilar on Unsplash

A Cluttered Life: Middle Class Abundance

“The USA has 3.1% of the world’s children, yet consumes 40% of the world’s toys.”

I’m fascinated with “hyper-consumerism.” American homes have more possessions than any society throughout history, and we have the debt to show for it!

Anthropologists open the doors (and fridges and closets) in 32 middle-class Los Angeles homes. Take a peek inside the lives of other real-life people as we try to better understand our behaviors. This 18 minute UCTV prime series is a must watch!

For a print version, check out their book Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century.

A Cluttered Life inspired me to declutter my home.

Minimalism: Live A Meaningful Life

After watching A Cluttered Life, you may have a strong motivation to start decluttering. Enter The Minimalists. If you’ve followed their blog or podcast, many of the same stories and concepts are presented in this movie. However, it is still inspiring to see.

Minimalism isn’t about getting rid of all your possessions. It’s about intentional living: being mindful about the way in which we live our lives. This movie is for anyone who wants to fill their life with people, commitments, and things they value while removing distractions.

Some of my favorite bloggers make appearances in this film, including Joshua Becker (of Becoming Minimalist) Courtney Carver (of Be More with Less and the creator of Project 333), and Leo Babauta (of Zen Habits and mnmlist).

As Leo says in a final line of the movie, “Stop the madness!”

The Minimalists inspired me to spend money consistent with my values.


Which documentaries have inspired you?

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