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 22 years after the film's release, that sentiment has become something of a Greek chorus among Wall Street's numerous critics.
Why aren't the real "crooks" in the can? Go ask head Fed law enforcement guy, Eric Holder. 'Nuff said?
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 an IT consultant by the name of Walt Bergen brought the parallels to my attention. He's a Goodfellas fanatic and had grown absolutely fascinated by how one episode in particular, the Bamboo Lounge bust-out, followed the same trajectory as the sub-prime gold rush that led up to Wall Street's 2008 meltdown. All this grew out of his research for a power-point presentation, "Rigged," which he describes as the:
"true story of how a small group of Wall Street bankers, by name, bribed the highest ranking government officials, by name, with jobs and money to rig the financial system so that American taxpayers would be liable for the multi-trillion dollar losses on their speculative bets while they paid themselves billions of dollars in fees and bonuses."
He's found a receptive audience for these revelations, in particular, the college crowd and assorted hipsters now coming to grips with the legacy bestowed to them by the Wall Street mob.
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 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... Think Carl Levin facing off against squinty Lloyd 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.
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 and as they carry on with the thievery, notably in the continuing foreclosure epidemic and regulatory foreclosure review cover-up, nothing is "hands-off." When it comes to making a buck this crew will do it by any means necessary.
Joel Sucher, a filmmaker with Pacific Street Films in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. is working on Foreclosure Diaries, a documentary about the financial crisis and has blogged on foreclosure related issues for American Banker. and Huffington Post. He is currently working on a Doo Wopp memoir of mid-century Brooklyn titled, Salugi.