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Dan Webster reviews " Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street"

Michael Douglas’ character Gordon Gekko famously, and succinctly, pronounced his attitude toward the virtues of capitalism in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film “Wall Street.” “Greed,” he said, “for lack of a better word, is good.”

Gekko then goes on to claim that greed “captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” “Greed, in all of its forms,” he says,” greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

Gekko’s predatory financial practices, however, end up with him sharing the same kind of fate endured by any number of real-life shady characters, from Ivan Boesky to Michael Milken: namely, a stay in prison … though that isn’t made clear until Stone’s 2010 sequel, titled “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”

None of these scoundrels, though, compares to Bernie Madoff, the subject of Joe Berlinger’s four-part Netflix documentary “Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street.” Madoff’s kind of corruption – he engineered the biggest Ponzi scheme in history – is different from that employed by venture-capitalist Gekko, whose specialty is insider trading. Yet the two definitely have something in common: their shared obsession for wealth and its attendant rewards.

Born in 1938 in the New York City borough of Queens, Bernard Lawrence Madoff didn’t come from Ivy League stock. A law-school dropout, Madoff in 1960 opened his own investment company with money he’d earned working at odd jobs, though a $50,000 loan from his father-in-law certainly helped – as did the business contacts that accompanied the loan.

What Madoff didn’t have in financial or personal pedigree, he made up for in both smarts and personality. He was buoyed by his willingness to take on small accounts that other firms would ignore, and by having developed computerized processes that would soon lead him to become a three-time head of Nasdaq – the New York-based stock exchange that, by its own definition, “is the most active stock trading venue in the US by volume.”

Yet despite his success as a legitimate trader, which reportedly was earning him $100 million annually, Madoff wanted more. How he schemed, and was able, to get more is what Berlinger’s Netflix series explores.

Essentially, Madoff ran two businesses. One was the legitimate Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC, which he founded in 1960. The other was a shadowy asset-management service, which he founded – the dates are unclear – perhaps as early as the late ’60s. It was that second business, which he kept exclusive, that from the beginning amounted to a criminal enterprise.

Its exclusivity, plus the fake high returns Madoff was reporting, made it easier for him to hide what he was doing. As Berlinger makes clear, Madoff employed a small coterie of loyal confederates – all of whom worked on the secretive 17th floor and who were separate from the legitimate firm, which was run on the 19th floor. Their job was to fake investments that Madoff never made.

When the financial meltdown of 2008 occurred, Madoff ran out of money to fund his Ponzi scheme, which showed – on paper, at least – a worth of nearly $65 billion, though the actual sum was closer to $20 billion. He was arrested, ultimately admitted to his crimes, was sent to jail where he died in 2021.

Berlinger re-creates some of what happened by hiring actors to portray both Madoff and various others. And this feels unnecessary, especially when compared to the many riveting interviews that he includes, from the author Diana B. Henriques to Harry Markopolos, the accountant who tried several times, in vain, to report to the Securities and Exchange commission what he saw as Madoff’s fraudulent activities.

The SEC’s complicity, at very least negligence, in spotting Madoff’s actions over a four-decade period, is one of Berlinger’s biggest conclusions. That he never really does answer why Madoff did something so blatantly, so stupidly criminal, though, is disappointing.

But maybe there are no easy answers. In “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” Gordon Gekko says, “It's not about the money. It's about the game between people.” Whatever his motivation, Madoff

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.

“Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes about movies and more for