Why Does Hollywood Celebrate Fraudsters Who Rip Us Off?


Editor's Note: This is the latest from Lynn Parramore's ongoing series, "The Age of Fraud," part of AlterNet's New Economic Dialogue Project.

Margot Robbie, who plays the wife of hard-partying stock swindler Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, explains in an interview how Martin Scorsese bamboozles the audience into cheering a morally repugnant man:

“Often, you know, the protagonist, the hero of the story is a bad guy, but you’re on his side the whole way. And everyone else, too, like, they’re not really technically portrayed as good people in the film, but you’re still on their side. They’re breaking the law and you want them to get a way with it. It’s kind of amazing that he can position the audience to feel that way about characters who are blatantly doing horrible things. It’s great though. It’s fun!”

For three hours, Belfort, portrayed with manic intensity by Leonardo DiCaprio, lies, humps and snorts his way through a binge of fraud and frolic that would make Gordon Gekko, and possibly a few Roman emperors, blush. Belfort starts out hustling penny stocks, selling “garbage to garbage men,” but quickly works his way up from screwing over poor people to ripping off wealthy investors, using the proceeds to hire truckloads of hookers and dwarves used for target practice at office parties (seriously!).

Not everyone was amused. In an open letter to Scorsese and DiCaprio, Christina McDowell, the daughter of one of Belfort’s partners in crime, describes the emotional pain and financial ruin she suffered as a teen when the dad she believed in turned out to be a crook. She doesn’t mince words about the treatment of the Belfort saga in the film:

“So here's the deal. You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers' fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees. And yet you're glorifying it—you who call yourselves liberals.”

She’s got a point. Why does Hollywood celebrate financial fraudsters when just about the entire country has been victimized by them?

One Nation Under Fraud

The idea that we can reinvent ourselves and shimmy up the social and economic ladder runs deep in American culture, tapped most famously in The Great Gatsby (recently adapted in a film starring DiCaprio, whose roles as the conman-charmer include the fictional Jay Gatsby and Frank Abagnale, the real-life forger of Catch Me if You Can). It’s as old as the canny Dutch traders who finagled their way into property in early New Amsterdam and morphed into America’s social elite. We’re a country founded in no small part by smugglers, pirates, slavers, and financial fraudsters of every description.

But unlike the case of Australia, our religious traditions run almost as deep as our worship of money. Puritan preachers and historians threw a cloak of morality over this festival of flimflam and taught us that he who has the money must be favored by God — a god who eventually took on a code name: the Market. Guided by an invisible hand, the West was settled and the railroads were built and if large numbers of people were hustled — or worse — in the process, at least we had a shot at upward mobility amid the ruckus. So the story went.

Certainly this tradition explains part of our fascination — and acceptance — of con artists. But Hollywood added its own hypnotic magic to the mix.

Hollywood Hustle

Martin Scorsese is a product of New York’s Little Italy of the 1940s, where certain energetic men broke the bounds of working-class drudgery to become celebrated mobsters. As a boy, Scorsese could not help but be awed by the swaggering swindlers who never suffered humiliation from the factory boss. In reality, it was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal which did the most to lift New York City and neighborhoods like Little Italy out of the Depression. But WPA workers weren’t as sexy as mobsters, and in the era of the blacklist, they were anything but likely objects for a movie. Scorsese became entranced by characters from humble places who got their piece of the American pie by playing the right con.

The little boy grew up to give America a body of work enamored with macho crime culture. Scorsese’s first foray into mainstream movie-making, The Color of Money, celebrates of the romance of the pool shark. He followed that success with Goodfellas and Casino, two violent gangster movies that made crime feel glamorous and guilt-free. The hustler was now a rock star, a celebrity, the man to root for, even in his excesses  — and of course, he was always a man.

This romance of the swindler, courtesy of Scorsese and Coppola, has permeated American popular culture so profoundly that it now dominates even the daytime soap opera. “General Hospital,” the 50-year-old grande dame of daytime, is now populated by more mobsters than medical personnel. The mob boss has become the romantic hero for America’s stay-at-home moms.

Hollywood’s attraction to crime figures is natural in that they make for exciting narratives and characters whose exploits provide titillation and escape from our ordinary lives. The viewer gets not only the thrill of the ride, but the juicy satisfaction of being on the inside of the scam. The hustler movie tickles America’s libertarian fantasies, too. The conman is free to do what he wants, when he wants, and the government can go screw itself: The recently released American Hustle, starring Christian Bale as '70s flimflammer Irving Rosenfeld, delivers not only high-octane entertainment but nourishes America’s anti-authority streak when Rosenfeld and his partner (played by Amy Adams) put one over on the FBI. 

But there’s something deeper. American mass culture, if you really get down to it, is itself a hustle — a set of attitudes and values driven by market forces that promote the advantage of wealthy people who control a system rigged to separate regular folks from their hard-earned money. Wouldn’t those one percenters prefer us to cheer financial fraudsters, or at the very least, think of them as not really so very bad in the end? The more charming the fraudster, and the less we know of the pain he causes, the better.

Legendary hedge fund manager Jim Chanos, who teaches a class on fraud at Yale, points out that the fascination with the "charming rogue" figure is as old as financial fraud itself. But he notes that Scorsese is particularly adept at sweeping the pain under the rug:

“Whereas [Oliver] Stone's fiction attempted to show the societal downside and reveal the victims of Gekko's machinations, we see little of that in the ‘based on a true story’ Wolf of Wall Street except among Belfort's immediate circle of friends and family. We do not see, for example, the unsophisticated investors who lost everything in Stratton Oakmont's ‘pump-and-dumps.’ And nothing about the crooked firm's alleged role in Mafia money-laundering. Inclusion of both would certainly have reduced the ‘charm’ of this modern rogue.”

Greed Is Not Good; Unbridled Capitalism Is Worse

We are living in an era when the lines between the con artist and the politician, the financier and the mobster, are increasingly blurred  — a situation reflected in series like House of Cards, where members of Congress compete to execute the most elegant frauds, and movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, where a conman like Belfort is really just a wise guy with a stock tip.

But the biggest, baddest frauds of all are rare as unicorns on the screen.

When was the last time you saw a movie that condemned the sorts of people whose activities cause not just losses for hundreds or thousands, but the global mass suffering of millions? People like Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein and JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, whose sophistication and scope leave the Belforts in the dust, are presented in the mass media largely as reputable men who deserve our admiration, or at worst, absentee managers off paring their fingernails while their underlings cook the books and launder the cash and take the bribes. HSBC Bank has been involved in money laundering schemes that appear likely to put to shame anything Belfort could have ever dreamed. But don’t hold your breath for the movie.

The American legal system allows bank executives to hide behind the abstractions of their corporations and escape justice. They remain safely behind the scenes and protected from scrutiny. Surely the men (and a few women) who call the shots at these banks are both greedy and immoral, but Hollywood turns steadfastly away. They are not only too big to fail; they are too big to film.

Unethical and greedy individuals, of course, will be with us in any age or system. But our own American brand of unbridled capitalism allows the worst among us too many opportunities to fleece the rest.

Dan Berger, a lawyer and political commentator who has written about Oliver Stone’s Wall Street movies, argues that our free market economic system itself is “based on acknowledged immoral motives” and conditions us to accept immoral activities every day in the way our economy is run. Our current system is predicated, after all, on the morally precarious assumption of neoclassical economists that unrestrained self-interest is a beneficial thing for society, an idea as perverse as any humans have ever put forward.

You might say that movies like The Wolf of Wall Street or American Hustle teach us that unrestrained self-interest, otherwise known as greed, eventually creates havoc and instability in the life of the individual, and thus we might infer that it would also have this effect in the wider society. But Hollywood seems to shrug and say: Yeah, but there’s no other way, and it’s sure fun while it lasts. The hustler is blamed not for his immorality or for the brutal consequences of his greed, but for his failure to cash out at the right moment.

Hollywood channels a late-stage capitalist god of the market, who dispenses with pieties and offers this cynical teaching: The game is rigged, so polish up your con and then go on, kids, take the money and run.

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