Last month, I wrote about the film “The Wolf of Wall Street” on my Forbes blog. I expanded on that piece for an op/ed that the Houston Chronicle ran over the weekend:
The Oscar buzz this year is dominated by two movies about con men: “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” “Hustle” is a fictionalized tale about Abscam, the FBI bribery sting in the late 1970s that used a low-level swindler to ensnare a federal and state politicians.
“Wolf” is based on a self-aggrandizing memoir by Jordan Belfort, a penny stock promoter in the 1990s who ran Stratton Oakmont, a Long Island bucket shop. The faux anglophile sophistication of the firm’s name belied the baseness of its actions: Belfort and his cronies stole hundreds of millions from investors, much of which he has yet to repay.
“Hustle” leaves the viewer to ponder the nature of greed – was it Christian Bale’s con man or Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent who was more beholden to it? “Wolf,” by all accounts, is a voyeuristic smorgasbord of excess and debauchery that ignores the pain that Belfort’s fraud inflicts on his victims. Because it’s based on Belfort’s own account, it can’t help but engage in self-promotion. Joel Cohen, who prosecuted Belfort, noted in a recent blog post that the film’s ending is basically an ad for the “motivational speaking” business Belfort started after leaving prison. The wolf, it seems, has conned Martin Scorsese, one of Hollywood’s best living directors, into helping him launch his next scheme.
Leonardo DiCaprio, who portrays the self-styled wolf in the film, has said glorifying the hedonism while ignoring the victims’ plight was deliberate. He told the New York Daily News: “We purposely didn’t show (Belfort’s) victims. We wanted the film to be a hypnotic ride the audience gets on so they get lost in this world and not see the destruction left in the wake of this giant ship of greed.”
Without the victims’ perspective, it’s difficult to put that brutality of Belfort’s actions in focus. Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” in contrast, showed the clear consequences of financial fraud. The audience saw the toll that Gordon Gekko’s amoral philosophy had on ordinary people, including Bud Fox’s father.
The excesses of making lots of money are indeed hypnotic. Financial fraud works because money is an end so desirable that we often overlook the means. Few understood that better than Jordan Belfort. In the 1990s, I wrote a lot about penny stock fraud, including some of Belfort’s touts. As a reporter, I wanted to believe I was providing a public service by exposing stock manipulation. Often, though, I found the harshest criticism of my stories came from the victims, the stock buyers who refused to believe, until it was too late, that they were being conned. In some cases, they were so hypnotized by the promise of easy money, they didn’t care.
t’s easy to dismiss victims of fraud as suckers or rubes, people who are so greedy they get what they deserved. But if nothing else, “The Wolf of Wall Street” stands as a reminder, much like Allen Stanford’s far larger swindle a few years ago, that fraud isn’t something that just happens. It’s carefully planned. It’s designed to separate people from their money. Our desire to succeed, our need for financial security, our fear of poverty and failure – all are weapons in the con man’s arsenal.
People like Belfort and Stanford are more comfortable with lies than truth. Lies become the tools that, combined with a lack of conscience, enable them to prey on the fears and desires of unwary investors and separate them from their money. That is an important part of the Jordan Belfort story – in fact, the most important part – but it’s missing from the film. Even as Hollywood is bragging about his exploits, Belfort still owes millions to his victims. Perhaps “The Wolf of Wall Street” will help him recoup some of that, and in that way, perhaps victims will benefit. Belfort has said he plans to use proceeds from his books and the movie to repay them, but that offer came only after the prosecutors in Brooklyn filed a motion to find him in default on his court-ordered restitution. Meanwhile, the film is enabling him to reach a wider audience. It has propelled his book to the top of the best-seller list and the website for his motivational speeches touts the movie as part of its sales pitch.
In an age of “reality TV” in which spoiled children, hairy rednecks and dysfunctional motorcycle mechanics are all stars playing to a voyeuristic audience, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is just one more freak show for the audience to savor. Indeed, Belfort is apparently in talks to host his own “reality” show.
With Hollywood’s help, it may be his greatest con yet.