Did Hollywood sleep through the financial crisis?

The film and music industries are embracing financiers' excesses like Wall Street is a beloved institution


Daniel D'Addario
June 22, 2013 2:39AM (UTC)

Kanye West's militant new song "Black Skinhead," decrying the way the rapper's been treated by white America, is a peculiar choice for a movie about wealthy white Wall Street types. And yet the trailer for Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio's latest collaboration dropped this week, with West's hard-driving drums playing behind scenes of DiCaprio frolicking on a yacht, dancing in a tux, throwing out $100 bills and using lobsters as weapons. It's eminently GIF-ready.

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If Kanye West's latter career and the trailer for the forthcoming film "The Wolf of Wall Street" have anything in common, it's an uncanny sense that America is more or less over the class resentment generated by the 2008 Wall Street crash. In 2011, Americans occupied Wall Street; in 2013, they're buying "Yeezus," the album of a rapper who's gone from bragging he was a millionaire (on "Watch the Throne") to calling himself a god. And they're preparing to see the second film in six months in which DiCaprio plays a charming, roguish financial swindler with a taste for excess.

Occupy Wall Street gave rise to little popular art other than the mere fact of its own existence as a happening, and movies post-crash have barely acknowledged the themes of fundamental inequity expressed in Zuccotti Park. And there's been very little acknowledgment onscreen that a financial crash even happened; the years since 2008 have seen a slow trickle of films about Wall Street, which generally seemed off-key. Films like 2010's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" and 2012's "Arbitrage," both of which featured wealthy financiers played by glamorous, aging leading men, lingered over beautiful suits and the concerns of the financial ruling class, pausing to consider the victims of the 2008 financial collapse primarily as abstract shadows flitting around the edges of the frame.

"The Wolf of Wall Street," though its pedigree is more impressive than any other post-2008 Wall Street movie, would appear to be little different, at least from its first trailer. The film is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a boiler-room operator who was eventually indicted for securities fraud and money laundering. No matter -- just as he did for Jay Gatsby back in May, DiCaprio makes Belfort appear lovable and fun. The settings are opulent and enviable and the bonhomie between DiCaprio and his co-workers is palpable. Just as those who watched "GoodFellas" or "Casino" might have walked away wanting to be a mobster -- if only for a day -- the trailer for "The Wolf of Wall Street" makes pre-crash Wall Street look downright fun.

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Of course, no one has seen it yet. And it's possible that the film could be an excoriation of the Wall Street culture that led to the 2008 financial crisis; after all, as charismatic as Scorsese's typical heroes are, they're still gangsters. "To choose Scorsese is to bop these guys on the nose," said Dana Vachon, the author of the 2007 novel "Mergers & Acquisitions" and a former investment banker. But even the most damning portrait of financial misconduct can be treated, Vachon said, as a "how-to manual," citing a famous junk-bond salesman from a famous work of social critique: "Look at Gatsby. Fitzgerald is now being used to sell not-even-that-nice clothes from Brooks Brothers -- and nobody took a better shot at it than that guy."

The endless delays that dogged Baz Luhrmann's "Gatsby" adaptation may actually have helped the film; by the time of its release this year, no one seemed to much mind the endless consumption inflecting what had once been a story of the carelessness of the rich, or all the jewels and popped bottles of champagne, or the doofily off-message soundtrack by an oligarchical rapper who'd tried to profit off Occupy Wall Street.

"The Wolf of Wall Street," set in a boiler room (a location where salesmen use lists of potential buyers to coordinate high-pressure and -volume sales of often-dubious securities over the phone), may exist at the periphery of today's financial services industry; it's a period piece. Ben Younger, who directed 2000's "Boiler Room," told Salon that his own film, which some claim is based on Belfort's life (Younger called this a "complete lie"), had not been intended to depict Wall Street's excesses. "At the time, the collapse hadn't happened, and the Internet bubble hadn't popped."

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But a film made in 2000 and set contemporaneously looks a lot different than a film made in 2013 that takes the viewer back in time. Boiler room culture in 2000 "was seen as just an oddity," said Younger, on a break from racing motorcycles in Ontario. "But they were prescient in a way -- look at how exploitable the [financial] world is. The movie looks different now."

Indeed, every new piece of art looking back at the pre-crash era on Wall Street carries with it the knowledge of what's happened since then, what fruit the toxic culture of 2000s brokerages would eventually bear. But given that the entertainment industry never really bothered acknowledging austerity in the post-crash years, audiences may well be primed to revel in Leo's yacht and listen to some tracks off "Yeezus" before the plot turns and things go south. Things are looking up just enough that we can afford to fantasize again.

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As Turney Duff, author of "The Buy Side", a new memoir about working alongside disgraced hedge-funder Raj Rajaratnam at the Galleon Group, told Salon: "I think it was a little fortuitous for me to be able to tell my story in 2013. Enough time has transpired where people are at least willing to listen."

The 2008 financial crisis, said Duff, is "probably a few notches below 9/11," an event that generated a stream of pious, tasteful movies like "World Trade Center" and "United 93." "We're not going to forget it -- but are we susceptible to making the same mistakes? Yes." As for "The Wolf of Wall Street," Duff, who'd read the book and seen the trailer, was less than enthused. "This guy was making, like, $2 million a week. I had a hard time relating to that much excess."


Daniel D'Addario

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