Review: “Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street” (Netflix)
REVIEW: THE NETFLIX DOCUMENTARY ON BERNIE MADOFF
How did a Wall Street investment fund manager in charge of $48 billion of other people’s money get away with such massive fraud for so long without being caught?
Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street, the new Netflix documentary about disgraced con man Bernie Madoff tries to answer that question and fills in the gaps of what we didn’t previously know about the Madoff financial meltdown. Just released this week, the 6-hour Madoff marathon artfully crafts an insider drama that would make great fiction if it weren’t factual. The crime caper is told in four parts. Dapper silver-haired Madoff comes across as the interbred lovechild of Gordon Gekko and Tony Soprano.
Let’s be clear. Madoff was a financial sociopath. Utterly incapable of commensurating with his thousands of victims, he personifies the most destructive spoils of disgraced capitalism-cheerleading axioms “greed is good” and “whoever dies with the most toys wins.” How in the hell did Madoff think the game would end? Had he ever heard of Ponzi?
It’s frustrating that the grift has often been portrayed in a way that mythologizes Madoff as some kind of evil genius who duped the regulators and exploited the greed of lots of other shady people. But the reality is — what Madoff did wasn’t all that sophisticated. In fact, the fraud was so simple, arguably recyclable by anyone equally as unscrupulous, which is why Madoff wasn’t the first big-money charlatan and certainly won’t be the last.
Yet, for all its insider revelations about the New York City gifter and the detailed timeline of he somehow got away with deceiving so many otherwise smart people for more than three decades, in the end, the docu-expose is an indictment of unregulated financial markets and the myth that Wall Street works for all of us. It doesn’t. Those continuing to naively insist that markets “regulate themselves” have no counterargument to the massive Madoff debacle as the ultimate deconstruction of laissez-faire delusion. And even though regulators and people who should have known better blew it big time over and over again, it’s clear that unless there are more controls and government oversight of this rogue money circus, such crimes will keep happening over and over again.
Some will insist, with valid justification, that those who got burned deserved their fates. Why didn’t those who lost their life savings recognize the scam that Madoff was running and realize that his “gains” were mathematically impossible given the exorbitant returns he was making? Bogus financial statements packed with lies pacified dupes susceptible to charm, intoxicated by wealth.
There are no spoilers in this story. Other than a few persistent reporters who worked tirelessly, did all the legwork, and finally broke the story (you know, those pesky media people who many of you love to tear down), there are no heroes. We all know what happens. The great mystery isn’t what happens — rather, it’s how he did it. Credit the documentary for somehow holding our attention throughout, despite the little archival footage or visuals that exist. After all, it’s not as though financial crimes have smoking guns. There are no Zapruder films in here. Instead, this is all about good old-fashioned storytelling, and interviews with the witnesses are the stars.
Yet, even with Madoff’s foreseeable downfall, the conclusion remains unsatisfying. Maddening, really. Walking around Manhattan while out on bail, living in a penthouse during his trial, was a farce; especially since plenty of petty criminals who stole perhaps 1/10,000,000,000th of what Madoff grifted over the years remained locked up on Rikers Island indefinitely. And when Madoff was finally sentenced for his crimes, he was chauffeured to a country club prison. It’s as though Madoff made a mockery of everything twice.
Of course, lessons are rarely learned. Nothing’s changed on Wall Street. How many crypto-Madoffs are out there right now pulling another Ponzi? How many other Sam Bankman-Frieds haven’t been caught yet? How do Tim Draper and Cathie Wood sleep at night?
Though very insightful and watchable, Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street is little more than a cautionary tale, particularly for investors, quite likely to be ignored, its lessons quickly forgotten. It’s a compelling crime drama that leaves us all shaking our heads wondering how all that bad stuff happened, while questioning the motives of many but ultimately destined as nothing more than a blip of an interruption before returning to our own computer screens, opening our investment accounts, preparing to take another plunge, our perpetual collective greed baited by the spectacular returns of the next investment fund manager-superstar.
Wolves in sheep’s clothing remains a timeless tale.
Note: This documentary isn’t to be confused with the HBO movie and a short-lived 2016 mini-series on Madoff.