The Wolf of Wall Street can bite me

Posted on February 25, 2014


“If I lost it all without losing the money of any other people, it wouldn’t bother me a lot.  If I took other people down with me, it would kill me.  That would destroy me.  I’m not sure I’d recover from that.  But if it was my money, it wouldn’t make any difference at all because I’d keep living about the same.  I’d have to give up the plane.  But I eat the same as everyone in the room eats.” – Warren Buffett, who has pledged 99% of his $59 billion net worth to charity, on how he would feel if he had to start all over again. Watch at: 47:00

March 2nd is the 2014 Oscars, which I will be watching with rare anthropological interest: whether The Wolf of Wall Street will win any of the 5 nominations it’s up for.  You see, instead of seeing this film as having been the single biggest waste of my time this year, I’ve decided to actually up the ante and spend even more of my emotional energy in a vigil of its public humiliation on Oscar night.  The BAFTA awards already fired the first shot (a total shut-out, despite four nominations).  But leather-faced Hollywood-types probably didn’t get the hint; they pan for the real American cinematic gold of the Academy Awards, anyway.  So, I lie in wait. [Update: Yay!]

What qualifications do I have to rip on WOWS?  I daresay I have eyeballs.  And a soul.  Moreover, I was disappointed in myself for expecting a potentially edifying message on the modern pandemic of greed, from Hollywood.  All it did was yet-again prove itself complicit in this culture of short-term highs and self-interest.

WOWS is a biographical film of a penny-stockbroker in the late 80s, early 90s who served less than two years for damages of over $100 M to over one thousand defrauded clients, and now makes his living as a motivational speaker on sales techniques because he is barred from stock trading.  He spent other people’s savings and retirement money on hookers, parties and drugs, hookers, parties and drugs, and more hookers, parties and drugs.  And a yacht, which sank.  (Let’s call him) Numb Nuts has paid back less than $300,000 in restitution after 10 years, despite a self-proclaimed income of $10 M a year.  He claims to be penitent, but in an interview with Piers Morgan, when asked if after all these years he’s ever reached out to any one of the people he defrauded, he said no, it’s never occurred to him to do so.

In 2007, when he had a quiet moment to write all of this down in a collection of subjects, verbs and objects, it caused intellectual heavy-weights Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio to go into a bidding war over the rights to the film version.  DiCaprio, who “won” at least had the social skills to say that it was the most embarrassing thing he had ever read and endeavored to make a cautionary tale out of it.  But then he went and spent hundreds of hours with the sociopathic Numb Nuts to study up!

In full disclosure, I admit, I do not pay sufficient tribute at the altar of DiCaprio and Scorsese collaborations.  Nor really, of any huge star.  They are too well-financed that their choices are hard to discern as truly creative or just bought.  Couldn’t anyone do that?  What would a really creative actor, director or producer do with that same budget?  WOWS had a budget of $100 M.  Golden wings on a penguin.  To me, DiCaprio as a mentally ill teen shivering naked in a tub in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is still his most valuable bit of reel.  I’ve futilely looked for him ever since.

And so it was, that on half-priced Tuesday I saw the over-hyped WOWS.  It was predictably and merely a 3-hour B-roll of the most clichéd hooker-humping, coke-snorting, cash-in-briefcase wielding, bikini-yachting, etzzzzzzzzzz….  At least 2 Live Crew, in their visual misogyny of the 90s had had the sense to keep it down to a couple of minutes.

In junket interviews, DiCaprio and Scorsese have insisted that it was important to show the extent of Numb Nut’s excess.  If I had merely been suspicious before, I can confirm now: these people have no sense of themselves or of the world around them.  They took a true story about a modern day Caligula archetype and worried that with a $100 M budget, 3 hours, the big screen and a mega-star to play him that they wouldn’t do the excess justice, unless they put their minds to it.

And sure enough, their conscientiousness was legion.   Any edification about fraud, redemptive ideas to stop this from happening again and character development were all sacrificed, as they were in real life.  Yes, WOWS is an apt metaphor for the bum-n-dink level of gravitas that the justice system actually gave this issue.  Numb Nuts still walks the earth with his shirt unbuttoned, his $1M memoir back on the NYTimes Bestsellers list, and oh, a little Oscar nominated movie all about soi-meme.

My theory is that DiCaprio and Scorsese are out-of-touch sociopaths themselves who

a)      either developed Stockholm Syndrome whilst hanging out with this guy

b)      needed to prove to themselves that homely jerks get laid too, if they pay for it or

c)      were themselves conned by this con man

How else, would you explain this:

*          *          *

WOWS, at least made me look up Numb Nuts.  I wanted to see if I too would be snake-charmed.  So, I watched his 90-minute motivational seminar to a group of internet entrepreneurs!

Buy my shit

yes, you read correctly.

In 2013, he’s still a compelling speaker dropping f-bombs and shaggy-dog confessionals to keep it real.  But his bottle tan, and frequent reference to his beemer betray the douche-baggage he lugs around inside.  He does punctuate his speech with ethical disclaimers like, don’t get people to buy things they can’t afford or shouldn’t.  Yet, there are steps he says, to psychologically break down the listener who refuses your pitch; his mantra being: if you’re not selling, you’re failing.  For example, you need to develop a rapport with your listener—be a likeable dude.  As well, you need to explain your product in the context of how it might achieve an emotional goal for the listener.  Ask them: Do you want your wife to kiss you when you walk through the door?  Do you want to live in that house of your dreams?  Well, then this is how X can get you there.  You have to be logical too—the product has to make sense for the client, obviously.  Circle back on these techniques three times until they crack.  Interestingly, after he repeats himself the prescribed number of times in the free seminar, he finally advertises the real seminar package, which will explain, he says, in much more detail for only $1999 USD per DVD set.  Then I get it, the whole time he’s been appearing to coach these entrepreneurs to make it big in sales, they’re just sitting ducks so he can make wholesale sales himself.  He follows his own script to the letter: doesn’t a Hollywood movie, jail-term street-cred, and notoriety as “the Wolf” prove that he’s the real deal?  He establishes a binary choice: be a loser or a be visionary and Buy His Shit.  The unspoken strategy: release noxious hot gas to knock people out before they can tell you: No.  Be the date-rapist of sales, it works.

*     *     *

Meanwhile, 122 billionaires, organized by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, have pledged to give back at least half of their net worth to social causes.

Details left out by the Wolf of Wall Street about Numb Nut’s fraudulent deals:

His schtick in 1991 (Forbes)

The 1999 verdict of the Stratton Oakmont securities fraud case (NYTimes)

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