Filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s Netflix docuseries Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street is an eerie look at Bernie Madoff’s ghastly $64 billion Ponzi scheme, the largest in history.
“He was a financial sociopath, a serial financial killer,” Jim Campbell, author of "Madoff Talks," describes the fraudster at the beginning of the series.
That statement alone sets the tone for how Berlinger has crafted this story about Wall Street’s infamous criminal.
The filmmaker pairs traditional interviews and archival footage with these almost ghostly, dream-like (or nightmare-like) re-enactments of the events. Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street is a gripping series with a stylistically irresistible approach to documenting one of the most outrageous crimes in history.
Bernie Madoff's business wasn't 'complex' fraud
Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street works chronologically, starting with Madoff’s humble business beginnings in the 1960s. In his early years, he worked out of his father-in-law’s office, eventually starting an unregistered investment advisory business, which continued to grow.
As forensic accountant Bruce Dubinsky highlights in the docuseires, this wasn’t a “complex” fraud. As he summarizes, it boils down to Madoff taking people’s money, saying he was going to invest it and he never did. As the Netflix series describes, Madoff had employees creating a paper trail of fake trades, with George Perez and Jerome (Jerry) O’Hara managing computer programs that took the information from these fake trades, and put them on customer statements.
By the time we reach the late 1980s and 1990s, Madoff had office space on the 19th floor of the “upscale” Lipstick Building on the east side of New York. The office is described as “sophisticated” and Madoff wanted everything to look meticulously in place.
But as he needed to scale up his Ponzi scheme, Madoff took office space on the 17th floor of the building, specifically for his unregistered investment advisory dealings. This space looked completely different from the 19th floor, notably very “messy” and “cluttered.”
A former 17th floor employee, whose identity is concealed in the docuseries, recalled the “grimy” and "sketchy” stuff that took place while he worked nights, with Frank DiPascali largely managing that office.
The former employee recalls an area called “the cage” where “everything was going down.” He says in the docuseries that there were people coming in “smashed” with their mistresses and people doing cocaine.
As Dubinsky explained, where the complexity existed is in how many clients Madoff had to manage, with his 17th floor running like “a bookie operation” keeping track of all the money coming in and out.
'He was pretty much The Soup Nazi'
Richard Schwartz, a Madoff investor, recalls his entire family, starting from his father and going all the way to his children, and nieces and nephews, investing with Madoff. He recalls it being “odd” that they wouldn’t get any confirmation about purchased stocks until weeks later, but stressed that it was “difficult to communicate” with Madoff’s company.
“Basically, one of the rules we learned early on was, he was pretty much The Soup Nazi,” Schwartz says in reference to the classic Seinfeld episode. “You’re asking too many questions? No soup for you. I’m going to send you your cheque back. That’s exactly the way it was.”
Schwartz added that people were buying into a “track record,” someone who was a known success in social circles. The positioning for many was that it was a privilege to be able to invest with Madoff.
'Records are made to be broken'
One of the major questions in this Madoff case is, how many people were truly victims, and how many people were complicit or “turned a blind eye” to returns that seemed like, and were, too good to be true.
In Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street, we see that it took Harry Markopolos a very short time to figure out that there was no special strategy to Madoff’s ability to never lose money. It just wasn’t really happening at all. Sounding the alarm bells for a decade, he tried to get the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to pay attention to Madoff’s scam, but they seemingly couldn’t be bothered to conduct a proper investigation.
Berlinger thoroughly documents all the red flags and signs of Madoff’s fraud, but balances that with depicting Madoff's ability to gain people’s trust and even be admired by many.
Markopolos stresses that everyone is “chasing the Holy Grail,” good returns without risk in their portfolio. But that doesn’t exist in the real world.
Posing the question of whether there could be another Madoff in the future, Dubinsky says there will be.
“That will happen. Mark my words,” he says. “It’s a record-breaking case as of 2008. But remember records are made to be broken.”