The Wizard of Lies: DeNiro and Pfeiffer Superb as the Madoffs

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Photo by Grahame Jenkins on Unsplash

I just finished watching HBO’s powerful 2107 story about the Bernie Madoff scandal titled The Wizard of Lies. It’s a much better film than the 6.8 rating it received on, casting Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer as Mr. and Mrs. Madoff and directed by Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog, Bugsy, Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man).

The actual event sent shock waves through Wall Street and far beyond at a time when several other financial tremors had shaken the economy. That a respected founder of the Nasdaq financial exchange had been running a Ponzi scam for decades was massively inconceivable, yet it happened. People were investing millions in his “investment firm” to consistently obtain double digit returns year over year. Or so they believed.

Here’s what was really happening. When you invested with Madoff, he gave your money to the previous investors as profits.

In other words, as long as money was pouring in, he was paying out, and everything seemed hunky dory. That is, until the crash of 2008 when Congress refused to bail out the banks.

The September crash made people nervous, but when investors wanted to take their money out of Madoff’s investments, he didn’t have the heart to tell them — many of them friends and family — that the money did not exist. It was not invested in anything. It was just paperwork.

The film is not a documentary per se. It’s more of a Greek tragedy about the real people at the center of the largest financial fraud in history. And even people who didn’t feel the movie was great still found DeNiro’s portrayal of Bernie Madoff compelling. I would include the rest of the cast as well, especially Michelle Pfeiffer as the betrayed wife and broken mother.

The film does an outstanding job of showing the human cost of the Madoff scandal. And in fact, in December 2008 I wrote a blog post about this very event just after it exploded across the headlines. At the time, news reports stated that it had been a 50 billion dollar ripoff. The film raises it to 60 or 65 billion. Here’s my “fresh take” at the time that it happened.

The Human Cost of Madoff Investment Scandal

When the story broke last week, one could sense it would have far reaching consequences, perhaps on the scale of a Jonestown or major earthquake in terms of subsequent suffering. The former head of the Nasdaq Stock Exchange had allegedly built a Ponzi-style scheme into a fifty billion dollar black hole of other peoples’ money.

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Illustration by the author.

Many images came to mind when I read of this seventy year old scammer with so much credibility that he could lead armies of people to part with their hard-earned cash. I mean, this Bernard Madoff was a respected man in the New York financial scene. He was trusted and looked up to.

Next I read of the fund manager who slit his wrists after losing more than a billion dollars of his clients’ money. Then I understood something. Madoff did not have to meet the eyeballs of the very human faces whose hearts would be crushed by this shameful crime. It would be the investment brokers and fund managers who took it on the chin. Those who still had a conscience, like Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, suffered pain and humiliation. In his shame, as a result of failing to protect the best interests of those who trusted him, he took his life.

Investor who lost more than $1 billion of client money in Madoff scandal commits suicide
NEW YORK (AP) — A fund manager who lost more than $1 billion of his clients’ money to Bernard Madoff was discovered dead Tuesday after committing suicide at his Manhattan office, marking a grim turn in a scandal that has left investors around the world in financial ruin.

Yesterday I spoke on the phone with a New York publisher who had aunts and uncles who were among those who were fleeced. She said they were devastated. They lost their life savings and it triggered a memory from my own family’s history.

My grandmother grew up in West Virginia. Her father ran the hardware store in Cairo, a small rural town east of Parkersburg. At some point in her early teens, her father suffered losses in the business and the six children were separated to live with various cousins while he strove to get the family back on its feet. The splintered family was reunited in about a year, a considerable achievement requiring much labor and sacrifice.

After the kids were grown, and he had spent a lifetime saving for retirement, he was persuaded that rather than keeping his money in the bank he should invest it. The investment broker into whose hands he gave his life savings would take it to Philadelphia and the family would be secure for life on the yields. I do not know the specific details of what was said. What I know is that the man never returned nor was ever heard from again.

When the truth dawned on him that he’d lost everything, Winfield Scott McGregor was devastated. It is said that till the day he died he was a hollowed out man who spent much of his time in a rocking chair on the porch, staring off into the distance. He never regained the spring in his step, never bounced back. He was a broken man.

The Madoff swindle might well be history’s biggest, fifty billion dollars. A lot of those betrayed were common folk who trusted the investment community. Many will fight this in court, hoping to retain something of their dignity if not what is rightfully theirs. But many others will be broken, overcome with resignation, adrift on a roiling sea of sorrows. This is the human cost of the Madoff scandal.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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