Huffington Post original publication date: 05/08/2013
Anyway, I never gave much thought to Goodfellas being a cinematic template for the kinds of schemes, scams and financial shenanigans pulled off by the Wall Street mob until recently.
There’s a great scene toward the end of Marty Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Unsmiling FBI agents flank Paulie Cicero as they perp walk him out of the mob’s favorite bar. As he’s paraded past colleagues, Paulie’s brother Tuddy offers this prescient sentiment: “Why don’t you go down to Wall Street and get yourselves some really fucking crooks?”
Good question, and more than 27 years after the film’s release, that sentiment has become something of a Greek chorus among Wall Street’s numerous critics.
Note: Writing this piece five years back I posed the question: Why aren’t the real “crooks” in the can? My answer then: Go ask head Fed law enforcement guy, Eric Holder. ‘Nuff said?
‘Nuff said, not… Fast Forward several years past Eric Holder’s DOJ tenure and that question, daresay, still hasn’t been answered.
Well, Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Jesse Eisenger, did come up with an analysis that holds as true now as it did then. No-balls prosecutors — members of the so-called Chickenshit Club — can’t face down Wall Street power brokers who wave around the cash; showering it down on their legal stalwarts at White Shoe law firms like Sullivan & Cromwell/Covington & Burling, giving real meaning to that storied comment by the late musical biz mobster Morris “Moishe” Levy that “money talks, bullshit walks.”
But first, full disclosure: I was on the set of Goodfellas as co-director of the 1992 PBS American Masters documentary, Martin Scorsese Directs (Scorsese was my NYU film school teacher way back when). I also happened to grow up in Goodfellas territory, first in Brooklyn’s East New York, a stone’s throw from the Pitkin Avenue cab stand, and later in Long Island’s five towns — the place that both Karen Hill and Morrie Kessler called home.
Okay, the Bamboo Lounge… Aficionados of the film no doubt mouth the names of the thugs as the camera gracefully slides along the bar introducing “Nicky Eyes,” “Frankie the Wop,” the inimitable “Jimmy Two-Times,” among others. This assortment of hustlers, button men and general low-lifes provided the grease that kept the creaky gears of small-time mob scams and cons profitable. The appreciative remarks and familial respect accorded Henry Hill in this POV walk-through — accompanied by torch singer Mina Mazzinni’s “Il cielo in una stanza” (reputedly Meyer Lansky’s favorite song) — revealed in minimalist fashion a hermetic sub-culture with its own rules, dogmas and codes (all to be broken later on).
Especially telling is the overhead camera that catches the Cicero crew feasting on dinner while Henry Hill describes the perks of “getting over.”
For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.
Obviously lots of easy comparisons to be made here. Goodfellas was all about what it meant to be in a crew; the power it endowed, the respect it engendered but most of all, the riches that it provided. Their Mega-Banking Wall Street equivalents operated in similar fashion with lavish lifestyles secured through the fealty paid them by political toadies (whose rears were well licked by high powered lobbyists), and regulatory enablers (with eyes set on greener pastures care of the free swinging revolving door). So, yes, if this crew wanted something to go away, like Glass-Steagal, they got it delivered via a sitting president, aka Slick Willie. When someone raised an objection to their dabbling in derivatives — say, Brooksley Borne — she got whacked care of Al “gimme some green” Greenspan. There’s loads of doppelgangers to play with in this game of thrones: some of my favorites include the Wall Street variant of Big Boss Pauly Cicero finding life as the composite of two real Paulies: Hank “bail ’em out” Paulson and Johnny “the hedge” Paulson and when you get down to the down and dirty you’ve got Bear’s colorful pothead cum bridge player, Jimmy Cayne, who once famously said of Tim Geither: “This guy thinks he’s got a big dick. He’s got nothing except maybe a boyfriend.” Sounds a bit like crazy old Tommy DeVito, huh?
Okay, so what does the Bamboo Lounge bust-out say about Wall Street’s accumulation of trillions? Begin with Henry’s voice-over once the mob takes over the hangout juxtaposed against the brilliant “fuck you, pay me” montage:
As soon as the deliveries are made in the front door, you move the stuff out the back and sell it at a discount. You take a $200 case of booze and sell it for a hundred. It doesn’t matter. It’s all profit. And finally, when there’s nothing left, when you can’t borrow another buck or buy another case of booze, you bust out the joint. You light a match.
Start with Wall Street’s smelling a gold rush, circa 2002 to 2006, with the securitization of sub-prime mortgages and Washington Mutual’s Kerry “killer boy” Killinger delivering barrelfuls of sub-prime loans through the front door, which fly out the rear as CDO’s “collateralized debt obligations” with sure to fail default “tranches” of said sub-prime mortgages, secured by credit default swaps, insuring that Johnny “the hedge” Paulson can make his hedge and make his killing, while others like Goldman strike the match, so to speak, and make their killing (i.e., Abacus — 2007 AC1) collecting massive fees on insurance after selling the guaranteed to default CDO’s to German Banks and Pension Funds and collecting “fuck you, pay me” insurance from AIG, all of whom now suffer catastrophic losses which the US taxpayer makes good on thanks to Hank “bail ‘em” Paulson aided and abetted by his willing errand boy, Tim “the weasel” Geithner.
I’ve got to catch my breath pondering the complexity of this bust-out and how many things had to fall in place for this to work and when Congress catches up with a few of the perps — first in 2008 — and they’re dragged in to answer for some of their shenanigans they go all D&D (deaf and dumb) and like Lloyd “God’s BFF” Blankfein simply deny, deny and deny… The capper was Carl Levin facing off against a very nervous Goldman trader — Dan Sparks — at the 2010 Senate hearings (“internally your own people believe that they are crappy securities”). But once the Sturm and Drang of the moment fades it seems that the Wall Street gang returns to business as usual.
However, in a dramatic turn of events which, no doubt, will soon morph into a feature film or streaming series, Goldman Sachs (who else?), has emerged in recent days as dramatis personae in an unfolding tale of creepy corruption via corrupt employees helping themselves to big-time Malaysian money (1MDB); money that circled the club and found its way to Hollywood and Wolf of Wall Street (mentioned in my Observer piece). There’s other stuff as well which the new man at the top; the big one with a bald pate — David Solomon — replacing the small one with a bald pate— Lloyd Blankfein — will have to answer for and that includes allegations that whistle blowers blowing whistles on questionable and unethical practices were ignored. Finally, (sigh…) the old Goldman Sachs — the House that Midas Built — is not having a good year, financially, which I’m sure will force many on Main Street to break out the hankies.
No doubt there will be plenty of cash to pay Sullivan & Cromwell and/or Covington & Burling (where the aforementioned Eric Holder resides)to wipe their dirty little behinds and keep any and all out of Club Fed.
So, what’s the difference between these two crews, apart from the sheer scope and breadth of their respective cons? Well, yes, one set of thieves did get their Shakespearean comeuppance while the others are still prancing about scot free. There’s another difference for me and one that harkens to a nostalgia for the old days when those that ran afoul of organized crime took their medicine the hard way, got whacked, but at least their families were left alone to live out their lives in the old homestead. Not the same with the Wall Street crew as they continue to hoover in housing stock to sell on the crooked “rent-to-own” market or the other myriad scams that third party investors and hedge funds have devised to keep them rich and all of you — most of you — in your place.
When it comes to making a buck this crew will do it by any means necessary.
Joel Sucher is a co-founder of Pacific Street Films (together with Steven Fischler) and has written for a number of platforms including American Banker, In These Times, Huffington Post and Observer. com. Many film type things in the works. Stay tuned.