Films related to Margin Call
“[O]ne thing that happened to American finance during the bubble was that these guys [senior financial executives] got a combination of ego poisoning and testosterone poisoning and they became very disconnected from normal people and normal life….Most people in normal life, if they let that attitude get out of hand, are reminded by the world around them that they have to control themselves… The sense of impunity that these people have is critically important as a factor contributing to the crisis.
— Charles Ferguson, director of Inside Job, Cineaste Magazine, Winter 2010
PBS Frontline produced a dozen or so exhaustive documentaries that helped to unpack the densest issues regarding the Financial Crisis of 2008 by looking at that event from a variety of vantage points. “The hedge fund king” and founder of SAC Capital, Steve A. Cohen, posing for 2002 holiday cards. In To Catch a Trader, Frontline reported on the SEC’s charge that Cohen failed to supervise his employees and that his company demonstrated a complete failure of compliance. The Justice department considered the company a criminal enterprise where insider trading was rampant.  Eight portfolio managers and traders were arrested; Cohen, whose net worth according to Forbes is $11.4 billion, was fined $1.8 billion and barred from managing money until 2018. I can hardly wait.

It’s Alive! The Credit Default Swap as Frankenstein Monster. In part one of a four part series called Money, Power and Wall Street, Frontline identified the birth of the credit derivative known as the credit default swap (CDS) as taking place in Boca Raton, Florida, during a weekend conference in June 1994. JP Morgan bankers in their 20s assembled there to figure out how to make loans less risky for banks, thereby freeing up the need to hold on to capital and allowing the banks to make more loans. The CDS, which are private and unregulated, became a popular ‘financial instrument’ that banks quickly found many unconventional and extremely profitable uses for. Hoodwinked. Wanting to keep derivatives unregulated, financial institutions, led by Citigroup, lobbied hard to lift banking restrictions, prevent oversight, and repeal provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act that were preventing commercial and investment banks from merging. With the repeal, investment banks now had an entrée into the consumer mortgage market. Liberal Democrats like President Bill Clinton and NY Senator Chuck Schumer, who served on the Senate Committees on Finance and Banking, joined the ranks of conservative Republicans and played a key role in setting the banks free.
Brooksley Born vs. “The Committee to Save the World.” Some regulators and members of Congress tried to raise a hue and cry about the threat of a crisis. In The Warning, Frontline tells the story of Brooksley Born who, in 1996 was appointed to head a small agency independent of the Federal Reserve that was charged with the responsibility of overseeing derivatives and financial fraud. At a luncheon meeting at the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan told Born that he didn’t think fraud rules were necessary because the market will always self-regulate itself.
Unintimidated by Greenspan’s veiled threats, Born proceeded to publish a paper proposing rule changes regarding derivatives. Brought before Congress four times in 1998, upon questioning Born famously insisted that her agency was “trying to protect the money of the American public.” For her efforts, Born was accused of orchestrating a power grab and with endangering the stability of a thriving market. Repeatedly attacked, marginalized and rendered powerless by the Fed and hostile Congressional committees, she resigned in 1999.
Raging Bull. In part four of Money, Power and Wall Street, laissez-faire American capitalism plunders its way through Europe and the United States. Armed with an arsenal of unregulated “derivative solutions,” the banks are free to offer their trusting domestic and international clients a way to reduce the interest on their pre-existing debt, or fund needed infrastructure projects. The clients, municipalities, institutions and even sovereign states, collectively end up paying billions of dollars more on top of their original debt. In a zero sum game, the clients’ loss is equal to the bankers gain.
I was a teenage quant.  Out of the mouths of reformed bankers: “I grew less happy with my work;” “You have the sneaking suspicion that you're not contributing to society;” “I never cared about money ;” “I felt it was beginning to change my own values;” “I just felt like I was doing something immoral;” “Everybody kind of knows in their heart that something's not right.” Potential mathematicians, engineers, and educators are lured into Wall Street’s brain drain, the gilded have-a-heart-trap. Unwilling or legally unable to talk about the huge sums of money they made during their brief but profitable tenure at the investment banks they worked for, the reformed bankers do penance by working with the Occupy Wall Street movement or other organizations looking to challenge the dominance of their former masters.
There are numerous documentaries that use a variety of techniques to succinctly do what the Frontline series takes a dozen or more hours to do. In addition to interviews with economists, psychologists, activists and so on, The Flaw (Sington, 2011) uses anecdotal stories from individuals, effective graphics and archival industrial films and animation that are both amusing and informative.
C-c-could we turn this off for a second? From Inside Job, an Under Secretary of the Treasury needs a moment from director Charles Ferguson’s questions. The Bush administration official was one of a few interviewees that were annoyed at being asked substantive questions that they were not permitted to bullshit their way through. Paulson, Greenspan, Bernake, and Summers had the wisdom to decline participation. “I ask you,” says the 4-foot 11 inch former Secretary of Labor, “do I look like big government?”  Robert Reich narrates and is the driving force behind Inequality for All (Kornbluth, 2013). Bill Clinton went out of his way to recruit, and then at some point proceeded to ignore him. “I became a true pain in the ass,” says Reich. “I would sound off about inequality….I became predictable. People would role their eyes.” Out of frustration he left the administration. The documentary focuses on how inequality undermines democracy by allowing the wealthy to control the political process.
Films related to The Wolf of Wall Street

Scorsese’s Inferno. The spiritual subtext is apparent in the opening credit sequence to Casino, created by Elaine and Saul Bass. The mob connected DeNiro character is expelled from the inferno of his exploding car only to descend into an inferno of a different sort while one of the strains from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion plays on the soundtrack. Street Penance. In Mean Streets (1973) Charley (Harvey Keitel) contemplates eternal pain as the cost of a life of sin by holding his finger, first over the flame of a votive candle in church, and later over a match he lights in a local bar. Rejecting conventional penance offered by the traditional church as meaningless, Charlie takes it upon himself to do street penance for his sins by trying to help his wayward cousin, a hapless street thug.
Take it off, take it all off. In a 1967 student film called The Big Shave, we see an early example of Scorsese’s talent as well as his apparent interest in symbolically depicting the self-destructive nature of some learned notions of masculinity. The five minute film was sometimes interpreted as a metaphor for U.S. involvement in Viet Nam, but the bathroom location makes it feel more like an ode to Hitchcock while the jazz soundtrack and the act of shaving connects it to a popular Noxzema shaving cream commercial produced the same year.

The Sacred and Profane. Scorsese has spent a career humanizing the sacred (Jesus Christ, the Dali Lama, George Harrison) or searching for the redemptive qualities in the profane (Jake LaMotta, Henry Hill, Jordan Belfort), while avoiding passing judgment on either.

Doppelganger. In The Departed (2006), a remake of the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs (Lau and Mak, 2002), Scorsese muddies the water between sacred and profane by providing ambiguous signification over the good cop/bad cop duality, and what constitutes a mob rat and a police mole. In a key chase scene in which the similar looking Damon and DiCaprio characters are both wearing dark hoodies and baseball caps, the viewer may be easily confused about who’s chasing whom. In the above scene, an off screen police officer, unsure about who’s the good cop, lets both of the characters go. This yin yang game is played throughout the movie, as is the ‘X’ marks the spot (of murder) game played in the movie as an homage to the 1932 Howard Hawks version of Scarface. “Is Capitalism a Sin?” Michael Moore asks the question to two Flint, Michigan priests and “their boss,” the Bishop Gumbleton in his 2009 documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story. The clerics say yes, it’s a sin, although it’s unclear whether their answer is based on scripture, or their experiences as residents who have witnessed the hollowing out of their city by trade and other economic policies that have made an enemy of their labor union affiliated congregation.

The Propaganda Machine. (above) Calling capitalism a “radical evil,” Father Peter Dougherty goes on to say, “I’m in awe of propaganda: the ability to convince people who are victimized, by the very system, to support the system and see it as a good.” Moore’s documentary alternates between lampooning capitalism and it’s propaganda machine, and showing the human misery it causes. Like Scorsese, Moore considered a vocation in the priesthood, before turning to a career as a filmmaker, and his critique of capitalism is founded more in Catholic moral doctrine than Marxist theory.

Sex and Drugs and Money Roll. An MRI shown in Charles Ferguson’s documentary, Inside Job (2010) demonstrates how neuroscientist have discovered that the part of the brain that is stimulated by the thrill of earning money and the rush from cocaine, are the same. Many of the documentaries about the Crisis including Danny Schechter’s Plunder: The Crime of Our Time (2009) and Alex Gibney’s Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, address the testosterone link between sex, drugs, power and money-making.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan and Naomi are aware of the link without the benefit of an MRI.

[above] A New York State of Mind. As governor of New York, home of one of the most corrupt states in the U.S., Spitzer proceeded to make enemies of a different sort as he challenged the dominance of entrenched politicians that had a seemingly unyielding sense of entitlement. After Spitzer resigned in the wake of a sex scandal, three of the officials pictured above (Joe Bruno, Malcolm Smith, and Sheldon Silver) were expelled from office after they were convicted on federal fraud and bribery charges. Spitzer was never charged with anything other than a nasty case of hubris.


[left] The Pissing Contest. The argument behind Client 9 is that New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer’s (top) fall from grace had more to do with his aggressive prosecution of white-collar criminals on Wall Street while he was the State Attorney General, than his sexual escapades with The Emperors Club prostitute that he frequented. During his investigation, Spitzer angered two very powerful people who felt more persecuted than prosecuted: Hank Greenberg of AIG (center), and Ken Langone, co-founder of The Home Depot. They were unforgiving.


Annotated Art. “The word that shows up on my paintings more than any other word is greed,” says artist Geoffrey Raymond, who appeared in Danny Schechter’s film, Plunder. Conservative critics of Wolf of Wall Street accuse the film as being unfairly skewed. One critic for example, accused the film of making “Belfort emblematic of Wall Street’s greed” when “he was nothing more than a thief who found a way to steal from anyone who trusted him and to blame it on the stock market.” The comment belies the environment created by decades of deregulating capitalism, which allowed a broad scope of criminality to flourish unpunished, of which the “annotators” of Raymond’s work seem to be well aware. Raymond set up shop on Wall Street, where passersby from all stripes of life used pens to add unmediated “annotations” to his paintings. On the left, The Annotated Fed (Ben Bernake) and The Screaming Pope (Hank Paulson).
The Canary in the Coal Mine. How many examples of criminality must be provided to Wall Street apologists before they stop saying Bernie Madoff, Raj Rajaratnan, Jordan Belfort or Eddie Stern are isolated thieves who found a way to game the system? In Client 9 we learn how Stern’s hedge fund, Canary Capital Partners, with the help of Bank of America, engaged in “late trading,” which is analogized in the documentary as being allowed to bet on a horse race after the race is over and you know who won. Stern made a plea deal after providing dozens of names to Spitzer, and fraud charges were dropped. You can read the lengthy 2004 Fortune article here, or a summary here.
Namesake. Charles Ponzi, the patron saint of white-collar criminals, was born Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi and also went by the name Ponci and Bianchi. You can never have too many names when you are robbing Peter to pay Paul.