The documentary shows the development of the contemporary business corporation, from a legal entity that originated as a government-chartered institution meant to effect specific public functions, to the rise of the modern commercial institution entitled to most of the legal rights of a person. One theme is its assessment as a "personality", as a result of an 1886 case in the United States Supreme Court in which a statement by Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite[nb 1] led to corporations as "persons" having the same rights as human beings, based on the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The film's assessment is effected via the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-IV; Robert Hare, a University of British Columbia psychology professor and a consultant to the FBI, compares the profile of the contemporary profitable business corporation to that of a clinically-diagnosed psychopath. The documentary concentrates mostly upon North American corporations, especially those of the United States.
Topics addressed include the Business Plot, where in 1933, General Smedley Butler exposed an alleged corporate plot against then U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt; the tragedy of the commons; Dwight D. Eisenhower's warning people to beware of the rising military-industrial complex; economic externalities; suppression of an investigative news story about Bovine Growth Hormone on a Fox News Channel affiliate television station; the invention of the soft drink Fanta by the Coca-Cola Company due to the trade embargo on Nazi Germany; the alleged role of IBM in the Nazi holocaust (see IBM and the Holocaust); the Cochabamba protests of 2000 brought on by the privatization of Bolivia's municipal water supply by the Bechtel Corporation; and in general themes of corporate social responsibility, the notion of limited liability, the corporation as a psychopath, and the corporation as a person.
The film features interviews with prominent corporate critics such as Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Vandana Shiva, Charles Kernaghan, and Howard Zinn as well as opinions from company CEOs such as Ray Anderson (from the Interface carpet & fabric company), the viewpoints of Peter Drucker and Milton Friedman, and think tanks advocating free markets such as the Fraser Institute. Interviews also feature Dr. Samuel Epstein with his involvement in a lawsuit against Monsanto Company for promoting the use of Posilac, (Monsanto's trade name for recombinant Bovine Somatotropin) to induce more milk production in dairy cattle.
The film was nominated for numerous awards, and won the World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, 2004, along with a Special Jury Award at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2003 and 2004.
The film has also been used as a teaching tool for the study of Intellectual Property Law most notably in University College London.