Watching The Wolf of Wall Street During the GameStop Saga
If Jordan Belfort were starting his career today, perhaps he would be one of the Reddit users sticking a middle finger up at Wall Street by jeopardizing their bets against a failing company. Last week, as r/WallStreetBets celebrated causing GameStop's share price to skyrocket, and app Robinhood controversially restricted investors’ ability to trade on it, the supposedly invisible hand of the free market suddenly felt very conspicuous indeed.
Outrage circulated from both sides of the politics spectrum, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questioning the decision to "block retail investors from purchasing stock while hedge funds are freely able to trade the stock", and Ted Cruz chiming in that he fully agreed. It was a cozy moment of partisan outrage that inspired people to share images of bankers laughing at Occupy Wall Street protesters beneath them while drinking champagne back in 2011.
Wall Street bankers sipping champagne from a balcony, laughing at demonstrators in the street. 2011 pic.twitter.com/otWsjhaY4Q— Andrew Wang (@andrwwang) January 29, 2021
Perhaps the best film to demystify the tactics that Wall Street is furious about being turned against them is Adam McKay's The Big Short, which details how a group of investors bet against the mortgage market upon realizing how unstable it was ahead of the 2008 crash.
Just like the group who made billions from shorting the mortgage market, hedge fund Melvin Capital predicted the demise of dying bricks-and-mortar video game shop GameStop and positioned themselves accordingly. But unlike the crew who ended up being played by Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling et al in a movie about their wild financial success, Melvin Capital ended up in need of a near $3M bailout because Reddit users rallied to drive up the share price. The ensuing meltdown of stockbrokers was celebrated as a richly deserved bite back from people who have again and again watched Wall Street gain from manipulating the market and have seen little consequence.
Margot Robbie wasn't available to explain this GameStop situation in a bathtub, so this is the best we could do. pic.twitter.com/Mw1dabmIzQ— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) January 28, 2021
Rewatching Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, which is currently on Netflix, even more interesting parallels between Jordan Belfort and the Reddit community emerge than in The Big Short, both in their tactics and the way they were received by the finance world.
Belfort starts out on the trading floor but loses his job after Black Monday, going on to aggressively sell penny stocks to working class people who fantasize about freeing themselves of their debts. After his wife asks if he might feel better selling stocks to people who can afford to lose their money, he graduates to ripping off the very wealthy and never looks back. As Belfort says while telling rich clients to eat shit and sticking a middle finger up to them on the phone: "Their money was better off in my pocket".
The "eat the rich" message of Wolf of Wall Street is worn lightly. After all, the soft curves of supercars and bare breasts are the prizes that the money, often literally showering from above, makes possible. Yet watching it almost ten years later, the wealth divide having only continued to increase, it is harder still to feel any sympathy for the wealthy investors who Belfort cons money out of, even if he does come across a cartoonish, misogynistic villain in the process.
The GameStop saga comes after a year in which Wall Street's profits soared amid huge job losses and growing financial insecurity as a recession looms. That a group of Redditors took it upon themselves to fight for a video game store and take down those profiting from its demise underscores the frustration with the wealthy in which people feel the super rich are directly stealing from them. The fact that the owners of an app called Robinhood were the ones to refuse to take from the rich and give to the poor only made the whole thing more grimly apt for our criminally inequitable times.
With Reddit users still attempting to hold the line this week, even despite claims of short ladder attacks from Wall Street manipulating the markets in retaliation, there is a sense that this battle is personal, and not over yet. "Give them nothing! But take from them everything!" posted one Reddit user, quoting a line from 300 to rally the troops into battle.
Unlike Belfort, the Reddit community has not done anything illegal, and yet there is something familiar about the disdain and contempt with which they've been treated for daring to think they have the right to play with money. It is the same contempt Belfort faced when he was flipping penny stocks, before he slipped into a hide the monied could recognize and became one of their own; able to con them by speaking their language.
"I want you to deal with your problems by being rich" Belfort says while filming an infomercial during The Wolf of Wall Street. Reddit users are attempting to do just that by playing Wall Street at its own game. Unfortunately, it turns out the market is only free to those that can afford it.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.