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March 2, 2014
David Warsh, Proprietor


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He Got Conned!

By all accounts, including his own, Jordan Belfort is a rotten guy – a swindler, a rat on his friends, an all-around cad. So what’s he’s doing in the movies, dressed up nicely and played by Leonardo DiCaprio?  Like everything else associated with Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street is pure baloney — an improbable lie about an inveterate liar. It’s also a very entertaining film, at least for its first ninety minutes.  The next ninety minutes seriously drag.

Even if you haven’t seen Wolf, you probably know something about it.  It’s the story of a little penny-stock promoter on Long Island who bilked at least 1,513 greedy small investors out of more than $100 million over a decade (that’s an average of $64,000 each) and went to prison for it – but not before spending most of his share of the haul on raucous living and then wearing a wire long enough to reduce his sentence to 22 months by implicating his associates.

The best scene occurs early on when a customer’s man at an old-line Wall Street firm, played by Matthew McConaughey, instructs Belfort on what it takes to be a successful broker (it involves, among other things, learning a bizarre humming-and-chest-thumping routine).

This is as close to Wall Street as Belfort ever gets. It is the day before the famous 1987 market break and he is soon laid off.  Driving home, he spots a small-time storefront boiler room in a strip mall and gets a job cold-calling phone numbers on a sucker list to offer hot investment tips.  He turns out to be a natural. He opens a similar operation of his own in a former used-car dealership down the road — in Great Neck, Nassau Country, Long Island, New York.

It is the 1990s.  Hedge funds are hanging out shingles in Greenwich, the merger and acquisition business is flourishing in Manhattan and Delaware, venture capitalists are thriving in Palo Alto, and real estate is taking off around the world. Everybody, it seems, is making money. By 1991 Belfort is claiming to have 150 salesmen working the phones for him at his newly-named Stratton Oakmont Securities. His salesmen get their customers’ attention with legitimate tips that seem to work out – after all, most stocks are going up. Then they begin pushing pump-and-dump schemes of various sorts, inflating earnings that do not exist until some great fool arrives to be relieved of his money, culminating in a preposterous IPO for a shoe manufacturer.

High-pressure sales operations like Belfort’s crop up in every bull market. They are one step up from the sweepstake scams that prey on the elderly. Reporter Roula Khalaf wrote Belfort up for exactly what he was in Forbes in 1991 (today she is foreign editor of The Financial Times).  But that’s not the way his shenanigans are shown in the movie, which leaves out the victims altogether.

Instead Wolf celebrates Belfort’s life-style during his salad days, the high-living props that are indispensable to successful promoters of get-rich-quick schemes. These are helicopters and yachts, drugs and prostitutes, money-laundering schemes and outrageous stunts (dwarf-hurling, anyone?).

Most of the antics shown in the film actually happened – at least according to Belfort’s autobiography, in which conferred the “Wolf of Wall Street” title upon himself.  He makes fools of the cops who put him away and spends his time in prison playing tennis.  He come out sober and clean and retools as an inspirational speaker.  In the movie his speaking practice actually gets a plug.

A telling contrast to Wolf is Goodfellas, made by the same director, Martin Scorsese, twenty-five years ago. In fact, Goodfellas is basically the same story. An ambitious young guy is attracted by a glamorous life of money and power — in this case, organized crime in Brooklyn.  He joins the Mob and rises in the organization, through robberies and murders, infidelities and prison terms. He becomes a successful proprietor in the drug trade.

But things turn out differently. His Mob friends are killed, for one reason or another. He is caught by Federal agents in a drug deal sting and is sent back to prison. He gives state’s evidence and is enrolled in the Witness Protection Program, doomed to live out the distinctly unglamorous life he had originally sought to avoid.

Why the difference?  Because Goodfellas is based on a true story, the rise and fall of Lucchese crime family member Henry Hill, as related with great ingenuity by veteran New York crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi in his 1986 book Wiseguy, Life in a Mafia Family.  Scorsese read the book and phoned Pilegggi; the two collaborated extensively on the screenplay. The film, starring Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, was nominated for six Academy Awards (Pesci won as best supporting actor). David Chase says it inspired him to make the long-running television series The Sopranos. The Lufthansa heist at New York’s Kennedy  airport that was at its heart was still front page news in The New York Times in January, when the last suspect was arrested. (It turns out the Bonanno crime family may have been on the caper, too.)

But the Goodfellas story was told by its director. Wolf, in contrast, was DiCaprio’s project from the beginning.  It was he who was persuaded by Belfort’s book. And indeed DiCaprio turned out to be brilliant in the role.  It is easily his best performance since he played another baby-faced confidence man, in 2002, in Catch Me If You Can.  DiCaprio has been relentlessly promoting the new film as having something important to say. Clearly he is not a man to be trusted.

So who got conned?  Martin Scorsese, that’s who. Twenty-five years later, the director’s story-telling gifts are still intact, but his instincts for truth have waned.  Goodfellas is one of the finest of gangster films, but Wolf is just another high-spirited story about an ingenious grifter. If you want to see a film about money that will tell you something you didn’t already know, see David Russell’s American Hustle.

.                          xxx

Thomas Parke Hughes, of the University of Pennsylvania (emeritus), died last month in Charlottesville, Va., at 90, after a gentle decline lasting several years.

Trained as an engineer at the University of Richmond, Hughes received his PhD at the University of Virginia, in 1953, then gradually retooled as a historian of technology at a time when the field was not yet recognized as such. By 1966 he was teaching at Johns Hopkins University and in 1973 moved to Penn.  Much as Alfred Chandler (1917-2007) was recognized as the nation’s leading business historian, Hughes was its pre-eminent historian of technology.

He wrote five well-received books (all of them much admired by EP, especially Networks of Power, a comparative study of the electrification of Chicago, London and Berlin), edited seven more, and trained many students. He was a distinguished visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for many years and a frequent visitor to several European universities and institutes.

A memorial service is scheduled for April 6 at the University of Virginia.

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One Comment

  1. Dale wrote:

    Heh…

    I remember Michael Lewis complaining that people read “Liar’s Poker” as a vocational-training guide.

    How many people would sign up for “You work like a dog for 10 years, get to blow $100M in high living, but have to serve 2 years in federal jail at the end.”? A few tens of thousands, I think. A lot of those people will drop quite a lot of money on his motivational speeches.

    As for Scorsese, I checked at “Box Office Mojo”: “Goodfellas” has domestic gross to date of $46M, “Wolf of Wall Street”, $114M. (And “Wolf” is still in the theaters.) I doubt that Scorsese is getting fewer points of the gross now than in 1990.

    Monday, March 3, 2014 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

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