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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, 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.