The Wolf of Wall Street: What Are The Messages?

DiCaprio as Belfort
The Wolf of Wall Street brought in $18.5 billion in box office receipts last weekend. I contributed $12 and came away feeling like a binge drinker – there was too much of too much. America’s appetite for excess is splashed across the screen – money, drugs, car crashes, naked women, kinky sex, stocks, bonds, hookers, yachts, bespoke suits, expensive sports cars, trophy wives –schlock and awe from the opening scene to the final one three hours later. It’s like a Hugh Hefner remix of Caligula and The Office.

The character at the center of the film is a real life person named Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose stock brokerage firm defrauded investors using high pressure sales in a pump and dump stock scheme that generated huge profits for the firm and over $200 million in investor losses. Belfort skimmed profits to fuel his out of control lifestyle and when the scam was uncovered he ratted on his friends, spent 22 months in a Club Fed minimum-security prison and agreed to a long term plan to pay restitution to the clients he defrauded. Now he lives in a luxury apartment in Manhattan Beach California, plays tennis every day and has a new motivational speaking and sales consulting business. Many of his investors lost their life savings. What do you think the chances are his investors will be around to reap anything in the restitution plan?

From what I can gather Belfort is the same snake oil salesman he was before he went to prison – and unrepentant. Why should he be – Martin Scorcese and Leonardo DiCaprio just released a glitzy film about him that is creating Oscar buzz. He lives at the beach, has a lucrative consulting business and a new blond shiksa in his life. Life is good for Jordan. Here he is hawking his own book.

Jordan Belfort

Does this look like a man who screwed thousands of people out of their savings and is remorseful for his actions? Not so. Instead, he is enjoying a rebirth of celebrity as the new Gatsby. Is it a coincidence that DiCaprio starred in last year’s film about Gatsby’s equally over the top lifestyle?

I don’t begrudge anyone their pursuit of a good life, but I am outraged at the way the Feds have let the scammers and financial manipulators who drove the country into the ditch get off with a finger-wagging hand slap. Jordan Belfort is small potatoes, a short, little, slick-willy from Long Island with big, wannabe appetites. Over the last 30 years we have seen bigger scammers – Ivan Boesky, Michael Millken, the Hunt brothers, Bernie Ebbers, Kenneth Lay, Dennis Kozlowski, Bernie Madoff, Allen Stanford, John Rigas, Anthony Mozilo, and Kerry Killinger manipulate markets and treat themselves like royalty. Madoff and Ebbers are the only ones likely to die in prison.

I hated The Wolf of Wall Street, but it is provocative. I keep asking myself “What is the message? What are the lessons? What are we supposed to take-away from this film? Skim, scam, cheat, steal, hide it away, rat on your friends and you might just end up with a California tan and a new blond on your arm? Is that the message? Is that what this film is offering up? The film is a raunchy airbrushed Playboy magazine fantasy. I could almost hear the nauseating voice of Robin Leach walking us through Jordan’s mansion on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The film is about wretched excess and cheating poor schlubs who work hard at their humdrum jobs and dream of a secure retirement. I don’t think Scorcese and DiCaprio intended to send that message but it’s there if you choose to see it. The Wolf is billed as a comedy but I don’t believe cheating people is funny.

The film is upsetting but our fury and upset shouldn’t be directed at Scorcese or sleazy, greedy wannabes like Madoff and Belfort. They’re disgusting, but they aren’t the ones responsible for driving the US economy off a cliff. The real culprits are a bunch of lazy Congressmen and those Masters of the Universe at Bank of America, Chase, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns, AIG, Washington Mutual, Countrywide, and Lehmann Brothers who were responsible for The Great Recession and the loss of trillions in Americans’ retirement savings. Most of them are still in place or hanging out under their golden parachutes. They are continuing to work out ways to enrich themselves and screw the middle class? Why haven’t we had one prosecution of a CEO or senior level executive responsible for masterminding the collapse of our financial system? How could we let Lloyd Blankfein and his crew at Goldman Sachs off the hook for selling collateralized debt obligations (CDO’s) and credit default swaps (CDS’s) to their clients while, at the same time, betting that those same instruments would fail? Heads they win; tails you lose.

KillingerHow could regulators let Washington Mutual and Countrywide open the floodgates and deliver a river of mortgages to people they knew could not afford them knowing that they would end up in foreclosure? These simple strategies ruined families and whole communities, but the people responsible are still unpunished. I saw a well-dressed Kerry Killinger at the Seattle Art Museum recently and last week I read that he is close to settling on an undisclosed fine with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Why isn’t he in tatters and in jail? Not only was he responsible for the largest bank failure in US history, but his greed and criminal negligence caused the loss of 9,200 jobs. Where was the Federal banking oversight when this was happening? What were the regulators doing while Seattle burned?

Today, many of 2008’s top bank executives are still around. Not only are they around, but they are drawing even larger salary and benefit packages and strenuously lobbying to prevent further regulation of the banking and mortgage industries. Didn’t the lessons of The Great Recession sober them up? Apparently not. They have dug in and are fighting any new regulations, even those that could have prevented the crisis. They are taking their money and influence pedaling to the same gutless Congress that ordered the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall, the 1933 law that would have prevented the self-dealing orgy that brought down the economy in 2008.

There is some reason to be hopeful, in spite of the money and corporate pressure. The most significant regulatory change is be The Volcker Rule, that piece of the Dodd-Frank financial reform of 2010, that prevents banks from making speculative investments for their own accounts that do not benefit their customers. It looks like the rule will be implemented, but you can bet that the guys with the green eyeshades in the backroom at Bank of America are trying to figure out work-around strategies. If it sticks, The Volcker Rule should help prevent cataclysmic failures like the unregulated 2008 collapse.

I hope The Wolf of Wall Street is overlooked in the upcoming film award season. I have to say I feel the same about American Hustle. It is an interesting period piece based on the Abscam bribery scandal of the ‘70’s – well acted and unintentionally funny in parts (Can a film about bribing six congressmen and a US senator be funny?), but it is yet another vehicle celebrating scammers and ambitious frauds. When the Academy Awards come around in March I’m pulling for films like Philomena, Nebraska, and 12 Years a Slave, movies with an unambiguous moral center. I hope the Academy chooses to celebrate artful, creative movies showing good people doing honest, funny, or courageous things that highlight the human condition and the potential for good. They’re the ones that get my vote.

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