Exploitation-Neutral Consumption

(Photo: Sigfrid Lundberg)

(Photo: Sigfrid Lundberg)

Watching The Wolf of Wall Street was a guilty pleasure for me.  It wasn’t that the movie valorizes Jordan Belfort’s crimes, which defrauded victims of more than a hundred million dollars, but I felt uneasy about being entertained by a work of art indirectly derived from the pain of others – especially since it wasn’t clear that the injured parties were participating in the movie’s profits.

The movie literally and figuratively kept the victims of Belfort’s fraud outside the frame. In only a few scenes do we hear even the disembodied voices of the defrauded investors.  But imagine what it would be like to watch the movie in the presence of one of Belfort’s 1,500 real-life victims, whose ranks included architects, engineers, insurance agents, real estate appraisers, and other middle-class professionals.

The movie repeats Belfort’s claim that his firm only targeted the super-rich. The idea is that we needn’t worry so much about who was hurt by these crimes, because these investors were so wealthy that they wouldn’t be as impacted by the loss of a few dollars. But some of his victims’ families tell a very different story: “My father lost practically a quarter-million dollars,” said one man, whose father, an engineer, was cold-called at home by a Stratton broker. His father suffered a stroke under the stress of his losses. As another investor puts it: “I’m not a rich guy, and I’ve been paying for it ever since.”

I would have felt a lot better if I had some confidence that these victims were also benefiting from the movie.  But to date it doesn’t seem that either Belfort or the movie producers have stepped up to the plate.

Belfort is under a court order to pay 50% of his gross income towards restitution for his crimes—and he claimed that he’s turning over “100% of the profits of both books and the movie.”  But in 2011, when Belfort sold the film rights to The Wolf of Wall Street for over $1 million, he contributed just $21,000 to the restitution fund. On October 11, 2013, Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, asked a federal court to hold Belfort in default on his court-ordered restitution obligations.

Since its release, The Wolf of Wall Street has earned over $300 million worldwide, becoming Martin Scorsese’s highest-grossing film. But the producers of the film, Red Granite, may have paid as little as $125,000 to the victims’ fund—seemingly under a court order. In short, buying a ticket to this movie isn’t like buying a bottle of Newman’s Own dressing, where you can rest assured that a non-trivial portion of the profits will go to charity.

The idea behind “fair trade” might be applied to movies and books derived from crimes to assure that the victims also participate in the profits.  Just as some consumers embrace the idea of carbon-neutral consumption by buying carbon credits, some moviegoers might prefer an “exploitation-neutral” way to consume the The Wolf of Wall Street.

New York and other states passed “Son of Sam” laws not just to deprive convicts from cashing in on movie and book deals depicting their crimes, but to redirect those proceeds to the crimes’ victims.  The Supreme Court has appropriately struck down those statutes on 1st Amendment grounds for singling out speech on a certain kinds of speech.  But there is nothing to stop consumers from voting with their wallets to assure some minimal victim participation.

That’s why I wrote to Judge John Gleeson of the District Court for the Eastern District of New York, who is administering the restitution fund for the Belfort victims, and asked whether it would be possible for members of the general public to make small contributions to the fund that the court had established to aid victims of Belfort’s crimes. I’m happy to report that not only is it possible to give, but that no amount is too small. Working together with Yale Law student, Colson Lin, I’ve launched belfortvictimsfund.org, which tells anyone how they can contribute. 

I am not claiming that moviegoers have a moral duty to remedy the harms done by Belfort.  But by going to the movie and taking even a moment’s pleasure makes us more than passive bystanders. We have a tenuous connection to the victimization.  By giving a buck or two, you can be fairly confident that a majority of Belfort’s victims would not object to your seeing the movie. 

There are many worthy charities to which you could direct your giving. But turning your back on Belfort’s victims simply because they are the “undeserving rich” is buying into what seems to be another one of Belfort’s lies.

Sadly, Leonardo DiCaprio seems to be drinking the Belfort Kool-Aid.  DiCaprio has endorsed Belfort as a motivational speaker, saying that “Jordan stands as a shining example of the transformative qualities of ambition and hard work, and in that regard, he is a true motivator.”  On the red carpet this Sunday, when Ryan Seacrest is asking “what are you wearing?” it might be appropriate to ask DiCaprio whether he also endorses supporting Belfort’s victims. 

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  1. Luke Smith says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  2. ng says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  3. Tyler says:

    Thank you for making this a bigger point.

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  4. Jonathan Harford says:

    While Belfort’s victims definitely deserve restitution from him, the thought of donating money to them over charities that would have greater impact on more people who are suffering worse… is just… bizarre.

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  5. Paulo says:

    I will download this on piratebay and donate the price of a ticket.

    I´m justice incarnate!

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  6. caleb b says:

    I don’t know….

    People with many thousands of dollars in disposable income were duped by a cold-calling huckster pimping “explosive” returns? I see too much culpability to feel any sympathy.

    However, if my donation came with some Quaaludes…then maybe.

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    • John B says:

      Since when did “retirement savings” mean “disposable income”?

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      • Paul M. says:

        When retirement savings became a luxury available to those with significant levels of disposable income.

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    • James says:

      I can see both sides. There’s a good bit of truth in the old cliche that you can’t con an honest man. The Madoffs, Belforts, and their ilk know this as well as anyone, so appeal to their victims by presenting something that the victims must, at some level, know to be dishonest, in a way that lets them pretend that it’s not.

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  7. Tom says:

    When he starts working at the small firm it’s abundantly clear he’s scamming middle income folks – and playing the dime markets is the basis of his company. The text at the end of the movie makes your point that he hasn’t paid compensation. The whole caper can be taken as a disapproving look at excess, but just because you don’t take it like that it doesn’t make your case for non-exploitative consumption. That’s a vacuous point recycled from fair trade, what Zizek calls ‘paying the price of consumption at the point of exchange’ – by your logic, every movie based in truth should be steeped in contrition and pay in to victim funds. Amorality isn’t Hollywood’s responsibility, it’s its muse. What of the exploitation of everyone who helped make and distribute this movie for minimal wages? I’ve come to expect better writing from Freakonomics, this is bandwagon stuff.

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  8. Shane L says:

    Mixed feelings about this, I agree with some of the other commentators here.

    Regarding the film itself, I’m very glad it had no moral tone! I find it a bit wearisome sometimes when Hollywood interrupts a glorious amoral romp with some insincere moral message at the end. Wolf, for me, was just hilarious and gloriously obscene, and I’m glad!

    But I quite like Ian Ayres at least sharing the option to donate to the victims.

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