Why Does Hollywood Celebrate Fraudsters Who Rip Us Off?

Movies like “The Wolf of Wall Street” have but one message: Take the money and run.

Margot Robbie, who plays the wife of hard-partying stock swindler Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, explains in an interview how Martin Scorsese bamboozles the audience into cheering a morally repugnant man:

“Often, you know, the protagonist, the hero of the story is a bad guy, but you’re on his side the whole way. And everyone else, too, like, they’re not really technically portrayed as good people in the film, but you’re still on their side. They’re breaking the law and you want them to get a way with it. It’s kind of amazing that he can position the audience to feel that way about characters who are blatantly doing horrible things. It’s great though. It’s fun!”

For three hours, Belfort, portrayed with manic intensity by Leonardo DiCaprio, lies, humps and snorts his way through a binge of fraud and frolic that would make Gordon Gekko, and possibly a few Roman emperors, blush. Belfort starts out hustling penny stocks, selling “garbage to garbage men,” but quickly works his way up from screwing over poor people to ripping off wealthy investors, using the proceeds to hire truckloads of hookers and dwarves used for target practice at office parties (seriously!).

Not everyone was amused. In an open letter to Scorsese and DiCaprio, Christina McDowell, the daughter of one of Belfort’s partners in crime, describes the emotional pain and financial ruin she suffered as a teen when the dad she believed in turned out to be a crook. She doesn’t mince words about the treatment of the Belfort saga in the film:

“So here’s the deal. You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees. And yet you’re glorifying it–you who call yourselves liberals.”

She’s got a point. Why does Hollywood celebrate financial fraudsters when just about the entire country has been victimized by them?

One Nation Under Fraud

The idea that we can reinvent ourselves and shimmy up the social and economic ladder runs deep in American culture, tapped most famously in The Great Gatsby(recently adapted in a film starring DiCaprio, whose roles as the conman-charmer include the fictional Jay Gatsby and Frank Abagnale, the real-life forger of Catch Me if You Can). It’s as old as the canny Dutch traders who finagled their way into property in early New Amsterdam and morphed into America’s social elite. We’re a country founded in no small part by smugglers, pirates, slavers, and financial fraudsters of every description.

But unlike the case of Australia, our religious traditions run almost as deep as our worship of money. Puritan preachers and historians threw a cloak of morality over this festival of flimflam and taught us that he who has the money must be favored by God – a god who eventually took on a code name: the Market. Guided by an invisible hand, the West was settled and the railroads were built and if large numbers of people were hustled – or worse – in the process, at least we had a shot at upward mobility amid the ruckus. So the story went.

Certainly this tradition explains part of our fascination – and acceptance – of con artists. But Hollywood added its own hypnotic magic to the mix.

Hollywood Hustle

Martin Scorsese is a product of New York’s Little Italy of the 1940s, where certain energetic men broke the bounds of working-class drudgery to become celebrated mobsters. As a boy, Scorsese could not help but be awed by the swaggering swindlers who never suffered humiliation from the factory boss. In reality, it was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal which did the most to lift New York City and neighborhoods like Little Italy out of the Depression. But WPA workers weren’t as sexy as mobsters, and in the era of the blacklist, they were anything but likely objects for a movie. Scorsese became entranced by characters from humble places who got their piece of the American pie by playing the right con.

The little boy grew up to give America a body of work enamored with macho crime culture. Scorsese’s first foray into mainstream movie-making, The Color of Money, celebrates of the romance of the pool shark. He followed that success with Goodfellas and Casino, two violent gangster movies that made crime feel glamorous and guilt-free. The hustler was now a rock star, a celebrity, the man to root for, even in his excesses – and of course, he was always a man.

This romance of the swindler, courtesy of Scorsese and Coppola, has permeated American popular culture so profoundly that it now dominates even the daytime soap opera. “General Hospital,” the 50-year-old grande dame of daytime, is now populated by more mobsters than medical personnel. The mob boss has become the romantic hero for America’s stay-at-home moms.

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