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Two Weeks at the Movies: The Wolf of Wall Street and Other Tales

January 30, 2014

The surest sign that a movie has made more than a superficial impression on me is when I dream about it. In the past couple of weeks I’ve watched three of the most talked-about movies in this Oscar season: Inside Llewyn Davis, Twelve Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street.

I should have dreamed about the first two, but didn’t. More on them later.

Martin Scorsese’s Wall Street orgymentary was the one that gave me nightmares. Was it the dwarf-throwing, the hookers or the quaaludes and coke? No, though the excesses of Jordan Belfort and his acolytes were on a scale that would have left Cecil B De Mille gasping with admiration.

It was the naked amorality – not the full-on call-girls – that really got to me.  Belfort’s story was not shocking, in the sense that everything he got up to – the rock star debauchery, the shameless robbery of hapless punters to whom he sold worthless penny shares, the fraudulent IPO, the arrogance, the contempt of the financial regulators – exemplified behaviour that seems to have been fairly typical of the time, at least in retrospect. But what is shocking is how his mindset still seems to permeate the finance industry.

In 2008, ten years after the Wolf was busted, a stone was lifted and all kinds of strange life crawled out from under. Bernie Madoff, for example, whose fraudulence exceeded Belfort’s by a factor of ten or more. So surely, with the humbling of great financial institutions and the near-death of financial system itself, the business ethos – the contempt – so graphically portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s film is now a thing of the past?

Not so, if the numerous cold calls I have received in recent years from kamikaze salespeople who might well have received their training from Belfort are anything to go by. The technique was eerily similar to that practiced in the film, though in my case they were wasting their time. But then I guess they’re used to people hanging up on them.

Perhaps it’s unfair to think of the entire financial service industry as a pack of Wall Street wolves, but then again every so often you hear a story that makes you wonder. A charming gentleman called Anton Casey, for example, gets himself fired from his fund management job in Singapore because of his Facebook post about the “stench” of his fellow humans in the local mass transit system. His Porsche, you see, was being repaired, so he had to travel with the locals, poor man.

Mr Casey, apparently, used to work for HSBC. Anyone who has read this blog over time will know of my deep affection for that organisation. Sadly the World’s Local Bank has blotted its reputational copybook in the UK by demanding of customers who want to withdraw a few thousand quid that they provide documentary evidence of the reason for the withdrawal. In an act of Belfortian contempt, this they did without letting their customers of any policy change. As one customer, according to the BBC, said:

“I’ve been banking in that bank for 28 years. They all know me in there. You shouldn’t have to explain to your bank why you want that money. It’s not theirs. It’s yours.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. While I’m all for stamping out money laundering and other financial crimes, if I want my money, and I can prove my identity, it’s my business as to whether I want it in cash, gold bars or any other negotiable instrument as opposed to through an infernal bank transaction. If I happen to be in the money laundering business, I will answer to the law for it, not my bank. And after all, the five thousand pounds that the HSBC customer was seeking is not exactly indicative of intent to purchase a shed-load of AK-47s and start a small war, or sufficient to set up a cocaine business in Colombia.

Demanding evidence smacks of contempt for the customer. It implies that you can’t be trusted to keep yourself out of trouble, so the bankers, backside-covering weasels masquerading as sober guardians of your money, poke their noses into your private affairs. Because they can, and because a few years ago one of them got fined billions for facilitating the money movements of Mexican drug cartels. Demanding the life story of some guy in East Grinstead is not exactly the same as keeping tabs on the multi-million transactions of murderous South American bandits, I would suggest.

One wonders what documentary evidence would lead them to deny a person their own money. If any bank asked me to provide documentary evidence of my need for cash, I would be sorely tempted to tell them that I needed it to invest in penny shares, hookers and quaaludes, and since I hadn’t  yet identified the suppliers, I couldn’t provide the evidence. At least that way they’d know I was one of them, and might look more sympathetically on my request. If they then turned me down, I would switch banks forthwith.

Which brings us back to The Wolf of Wall Street. Jordan Belfort may be out of the broking business – he’s in the process of paying back $100 million to the people he ripped off by teaching other people the sales techniques he used so effectively in his heyday (if the film is to be believed) – but his legacy of amorality and contempt for us ordinary punters lives on.

As for the other two movies, Twelve Years a Slave is the one that “opinion” – in other words the Hollywood lobbyists – is touting as the overall winner at the Oscars. I’m not so sure it will turn out that way.

Maybe I’m developing an immunity to movies that are supposed to shatter me into a thousand emotional bits, but this one left me cold. Perhaps because from beginning to end it battered me over the head with its cruelty to the extent that I found myself incapable of any kind of emotion. Other movies have dealt with equally harrowing subjects, and yet managed to bring a tear to the eye. Take the final scene in Saving Private Ryan, for example, where Ryan breaks down in front of the grave of the man sent to save him. Or the closing of Schindler’s List, where people Oskar Schindler saved from the Nazis lay stones on his grave in Jerusalem.

For all the fine performances in Steve McQueen’s movie, by the end of it I didn’t feel any more contemptuous of the Southern gentlemen who lived off the fruits of slave labour than I did before. Maybe there are a few ole boys in Georgia with the Confederate flag stitched to their backsides who might think a little less nostalgically about what their great-grandparents fought to preserve, but I’m not sure how many folk enduring this tour de force of viciousness will think differently about slavery as a result.

If McQueen’s purpose is to remind us of the origins of the black communities of America and the Caribbean, then Alex Haley’s Roots did so at least as effectively. Yet maybe each generation needs its own education on the subject, just as the Holocaust bears frequent re-telling.

I for one would like to see more attention paid by the financiers of Hollywood towards the modern forms of slavery – sex trafficking and indentured labour for example. These unlovely practices are flourishing in the first world – in Britain, in the USA – not just in the diamond fields of Zimbabwe and the brickworks of Pakistan. But hey, think the movie moguls, you’ve got sex in Wall Street and sadism in Twelve Years – what more do you want?

And finally we come to Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coen Brothers do music well. O Brother Where Art Thou is one of my favourite movies of all time, in equal parts because of the story, the acting and the music. Llewyn Davis has the acting and the music, but not the story. Great script, fine performances by Carey Mulligan and Oscar Isaac, and a diamond of a cameo from John Goodman. Yet the movie left me cold, though not as cold as Llewyn Davis as he trudged through slushy Chicago looking for his big break.

Yes, there were some marvellous set pieces, such as the car journey to Chicago punctuated by frequent pit-stops in which John Goodman’s bloated, tottering junkie refuels on what sees him through the night. But whilst this meandering story of a music-biz loser who ends up opening for Bob Dylan in early sixties New York is well worth a watch, it isn’t the classic some movie critics have made it out to be. Are the Coen brothers held in such esteem these days that their efforts tend to be greeted with a notch more enthusiasm than those of other directors?

Perhaps my eye is jaundiced through having encountered any number of “losers” in the music business who were far more interesting than Llewyn Davis.

It’s pity the directors didn’t include a postscript telling us what the hero did for the rest of his life. Who knows, perhaps he would have gone to Wall Street – through not as one of Jordan Belfort’s minions, given the poor guy’s dire inability to sell himself.

From → Business, Film, History, Social, USA

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