"That was dead-on balls accurate."
An anonymous stockbroker offered this assessment outside a recent screening of the soon-to-be-released film "Boiler Room." But before he could elaborate, he was whisked away by his friends, who feared that as a veteran of a sleazy brokerage like the one depicted in the film, he was risking his ill-gotten riches and his hard-won employment at a legitimate firm by sharing his thoughts.
The movie premiered at the Sundance film festival on January 28 and will open in theaters on February 18. But the goons on the trading desks on Wall Street have been looking forward to it for some time. They want it to be their movie. They haven't had one since "Wall Street," and they need some new lines.
The audience at the midtown screening was full of brokers and traders. But most of them had never worked at a place like J.T. Marlin, "Boiler Room"'s fictional brokerage. They worked for established firms like Paine Webber and Lehman Brothers.
|The goons on the trading desks want "Boiler Room" to be their movie. They haven't had one since "Wall Street," and they need some new lines.
J.T. Marlin is a bucket shop, a churn-and-burn operation just off the Long Island Expressway where 20-something brokers earn huge commissions by unloading crappy stock on gullible clients. They pump up the price, then dump their own shares, leaving customers with worthless stock. Think of the mob-run pump-and-dump outfit in "The Sopranos." Think of A.R. Baron, D.H. Blair, Whale Securities, or any number of obscure little firms that have run afoul of regulators in recent years. They are the bull market's underbelly, its raw, greedy essence. They are the real hustlers, without pretense.
Thirteen years have passed since Oliver Stone gave Wall Street its most memorable icon, Gordon Gekko, with all his op-ed-ready dictums about greed and lunch. Somehow, since then, a decade of stock mania has gone unnoticed by Hollywood. The culture at the center of the wealth-creation machine has escaped the mythmakers.
"Boiler Room," written and directed by first-time filmmaker Ben Younger, tells the story of Seth Davis, a young college dropout from Queens who goes to work for J.T. Marlin and experiences firsthand the crude sales tactics and lavish lifestyles of its sales force. Younger spent a year researching this world, then wrote his picture. It isn't going to win too many awards; it's simplistic, slapdash, and a little goofy. But it captures the swagger and the patter of the young obnoxious stock-hawkers perfectly.
There's a scene in the movie in which Seth, played by Giovanni Ribisi (the medic in "Saving Private Ryan"), visits the house of one of his new colleagues. The house is immense but unfurnished (with the exception of a tanning bed in the dining room). The traders are gathered in a spare room off the kitchen, watching "Wall Street" on a giant TV set. It's the famous "Lunch is for wimps" scene in Gordon Gekko's office. One by one, the brokers watching the movie--among them Ben Affleck and Vin Diesel--begin to recite the lines along with Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen. Then they chant along with the movie like a Greek chorus.
But "Boiler Room" has some new dictums for their real-life counterparts: "Don't pitch the bitch" (meaning, Never sell stock to women); "Act as if" (meaning, "Act as if you've got a nine-inch cock"); and selling stock is "the white-boy way of slinging crack rock" (meaning, It will make you rich fast).
"I was similar to the kid in the movie," said a 30-year-old trader at a major firm who started out in a bucket shop. He was speaking from his trading floor, the day after seeing a working print of "Boiler Room." "I was going to law school. There was a kid I knew from college who said, 'What are you doing in law school?' He was making half a million dollars, and he was out of college a year. I went to check it out.
"When I first got there, I didn't know anything. I was just intrigued by how much money these guys were making. I was looking at them and saying, 'They're idiots. I'm a lot more intelligent than they are. If these guys can make this kind of money, then I'm sure I can.' At first it was fun, the thrill of closing someone, making sales on the phone. It was a rush. We had limousine trips. Our boss took us out to dinner, champagne, Dom Perignon.... It was a good life, for a 21-, 22-year-old kid. You think you're a superstar.
"But it wasn't long before I caught on to what the whole deal was, and what these guys were doing. And it wasn't something I wanted to be associated with. My morals were just like, No way."
He got out. A friend got him a job at a real firm. He was lucky. The boiler room firm got busted and went belly-up.
The papers are full of wire items detailing the penalties faced by such brokerages, but so far no one figure has emerged as a face for this generation.
The biggest legend of the bucket-shop world may be Al Palagonia, the top salesman at now-defunct D.H. Blair. "Al would run the morning meeting, kind of like Ben Affleck in the movie," recalled one former Blair broker. "He'd play the 'Rocky' theme, just trying to get everyone all pumped up to get on the phones." In 1997, his hard-sell tactics got him sanctioned and fined by securities regulators. He was banned from the industry. (His basketball team was also banned from a West Side night league, after they started a brawl.)
But Spike Lee, who sat next to Palagonia at Knicks games in Madison Square Garden, cast him as the sleazy agent in "He Got Game" and as one of the thugs in "Summer of Sam." Al Palagonia the man may have made it to the big screen, but Al Palagonia the legend did not.
"Boiler Room" wants to give its audience some real Al Palagonias. But instead of Al Palagonia it has Ben Affleck. And Ben Affleck is no Al Palagonia.