Bank of America and JP Morgan's CEOs are more productive targets for rage at injustice than a Hollywood blockbuster
Greed is still pretty good. Con enough people out of millions of dollars and you'll get to live a life of hedonistic luxury where you can surround yourself with chimps on roller skates, pay women to have sex with you and enjoy midget throwing contests during slow days at the office. You might crash the odd helicopter during quaalude-fueled binges or sink the occasional yacht off the coast of Italy, but all in all, it will be a good life. You'll be the envy of many, and even if your treachery finally does bring about your downfall, the landing will be relatively soft.
So goes the basic story line of Martin Scorsese's latest film, the Wolf of Wall Street, featuring the debauched shenanigans of Jordan Belfort, a penny stock broker who swindled over $100m from thousands of investors, many of whom never recovered. The filmmaker has been criticized for glamorizing the protagonist's greed and failing to infuse the film with an Oliver Stone (director of the original greed's not really so good Wall Street flick) style message that the decent folk will prevail in the end. It's kind of odd though that so much resentment would be directed towards the filmmakers for doing what artists are supposed to do – be a witness to their time in history – rather than the real life enablers that allow the Jordan Belfort's of this world and their less ostentatious, but ultimately more deadly, counterparts to survive and thrive.
In the week since the movie's release, Scorsese has been heckled at Oscar screenings, criticized in various respectable publications for failing to use the film as a platform to showcase the suffering of Belfort's victims and admonished by the daughter of a former business associate of the self-anointed Wolf in an open letter printed in the LA Weekly. The daughter, now called Christina McDowell, after changing her last name when her con-artist father, Tom Prousalis, stole her identity to launder money, has good reason to be upset. Her family were devastated financially and otherwise by her father's ruthlessness and she has every right to be angry that guys like Belfort get to profit from their life stories while their victims wait in vain to be fairly compensated for their losses, but this is justifiable anger that is sadly misplaced.
The same week the movie opened, the very week the birth of Christ, the original champion of social justice, is celebrated, our God fearing GOP-led congress stripped 1.3 million Americans who have been unable to find work of their unemployment benefits. If there were ever victims who needed some attention shed on their plight it is those who lost their jobs and can't find another one thanks to the recession brought about by the outrageous greed and barely legal (and sometimes not legal at all) behavior of the "too big to jail" financial institutions and those who run them. By comparison guys like Belfort and Prousalis, who at least did some prison time for their crimes, are small players.
I'm not suggesting statues be erected in their honor or statuettes be awarded to those who celebrate such lives on film, but the anger expressed towards the film, its protagonist and its makers would be much better placed were it directed at those who continue to enable the fraudulent behavior of the big banks that helped wreck the economy while heaping scorn on those who are still suffering as a result. Put another way, if there's anyone who should be getting heckled at the moment it's GOP Congressman and ardent Catholic Paul Ryan – the driving force behind the benefits cuts – who loves to preach about Christianity and what a great guy the pope is (except when he goes on anti-capitalists rants of course) while practicing the opposite.
Meanwhile, as the Wolf of Wall Street (and those who told his story) are having their feet held to the flame, the man who likes to portray himself as the benign lamb of Wall Street, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, is chalking up the misdeeds with relative impunity. As David Dayen wrote recently in Salon, JP Morgan has racked up a veritable rap sheet of crimes and misdemeanors ranging from mortgage fraud to money laundering to fraudulent sales of derivatives to obstruction of justice, at least some of which the CEO could, and in a fairer world would, be held accountable.
In November, JP Morgan agreed to pay $13bn to the federal government after admitting to making bad mortgages and then inflating their value to investors. This behavior that Dimon evidently sanctioned (he is supposed to be in charge after all) is partially responsible for the housing bubble that culminated in the financial collapse that so many Americans are still reeling from. The government is conducting at least nine other probes into fraudulent and possibly criminal behavior by the bank, including its alleged practice of giving jobs to the daughters and sons of the rich and powerful in China. Despite his Annus Horribilus, however, Dimon is apparently confident enough in his current and future prosperity to risk wrecking his own living room and the Jackson Pollock painting it contains with a tennis bat.
Some of that $13bn is supposed to go towards alleviating some of the pain and suffering of the millions of Americans who lost their homes or are at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure, but it remains to be seen how efficiently and readily it will be distributed to those who most need it. A recent report by Bloomberg News revealed that Bank of America (BofA) and other big financial institutions continue to scam homeowners seeking loan modifications under the government's Home Affordable Modification Program (Hamp). Instead of helping the homeowners, the report found that BofA has continued to send qualified borrowers into foreclosure or even more expensive repayment plans all the while heaping on delay induced fees.
So there's plenty of reason to be angry at those who encourage greed or enjoy its spoils while ignoring the pain of its victims, but there are better ways to channel that anger than getting upset about a blockbuster film. True, Scorsese missed an opportunity to tell a great morality tale about the price of excess, but the kind of people whose life goal is to enrich themselves at any cost so they can pal around with chimps or fling midgets about for an afternoon's entertainment are unlikely to have been swayed by such a film anyway.
On the other hand, Scorcese might have done us all a favor by showing us how greed unchecked really plays out. If the public become less tolerant of the reckless behavior of the stealthier wolves of wall street as a result, then the movie will, at least, be worth the admission fee.
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