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Keep the 'Wolf' at the door

Scorsese film celebrates frat-party side of investment advice world

Dec 27, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

By Mark Schoeff Jr.

wolf on wall st, finra, sec, enforcement, fiduciary, stratton oakmont, jordan belfort
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If you're considering going to see “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the new Martin Scorsese film that opened on Christmas Day, you ought to think about an investment that might be better spent elsewhere.

No, not in penny stocks or initial public offerings that the movie's protagonist, Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, used to rip off unsuspecting customers to fund his lavish lifestyle. You'll have to consider whether to sink 2 hours and 59 minutes of your day into the film.

Let me give you some time-investment advice: Don't do it.

Like Mr. Scorsese's critically acclaimed “Goodfellas,” a 1990 film about guys trying to make a name for themselves in the Mafia, “Wolf” features a protagonist doing a voice over and occasionally addressing the camera directly.

The similarities end approximately there. “Wolf” lacks the element that “Goodfellas” has in abundance – heart. Unlike “Goodfellas,” there is no one in “Wolf” with whom you can empathize and no story lines that make you ponder deeper questions about life.

“Wolf” is a prolonged frat party, replete with graphic drug use and nudity. It's a celebration of the debauchery that can result from conning middle-class investors into sinking their retirement money into fly-by-night companies or rigging company launches.

For much of the film, the characters seem as if they're having a good time — except for the frequent bad highs from a volatile mix of cocaine and Quaaludes.

“Wolf” doesn't challenge the audience to consider whether Mr. Belfort's behavior foreshadowed the financial collapse that occurred almost a decade after he and his partner pleaded guilty to stock manipulation and money laundering while they were running the now-defunct brokerage Stratton Oakmont Inc.

Was there something about the way that Mr. Belfort is always selling that would illuminate why flimsy mortgage-backed loans later sunk the economy? Is there an element of Mr. Belfort's journey through the brokerage world that would give us insight into the dangers that still lurk there for investors?

The answers to those questions are not apparent anywhere during the laborious running time of “Wolf.”

It's possible that “Wolf” could stoke some discussions about fiduciary duty among investment advisers who see the film. While he worked at brokerages, Mr. Belfort didn't have an obligation to act in the best interests of his client. But in his professional bacchanal he didn't come close to meeting the minimum standards for a broker either — offering suitable investment products for his clients.

The film gives precious little screen time to the most interesting character — the FBI agent who doggedly pursued Mr. Belfort.

In its brief enforcement scenes, the film portrays Mr. Belfort and his colleagues — including his dad — calculating whether working out a deal with the Securities and Exchange Commission is the best way for him to extricate himself from the criminal web he weaved.

Taking your ban from the industry and moving on seems to be the easy way out. I would have enjoyed sitting next to SEC Chairman Mary Jo White in the theater to see her reaction to that dialogue.

Instead, Mr. Belfort decides to hold on until Stratton Oakmont's bitter end and his own imprisonment. He's now paying back investors in part through the money he makes giving motivational speeches. His redemption is a story line that must have been left on Mr. Scorsese's cutting room floor.

In one scene, Mr. Belfort is shown instructing seminar attendees on how to sell a pen. I admit I can't sell a pen — and I can't sell this movie either.

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