Financial fraud that ends in negative consequences for the perpetrators remains one of my key hyperfixations. I also enjoy painting while having a document on in the background. So, it was perfect when Netflix dropped a new document on the largest Ponzi scheme in history, executed by Bernie Madoff, which left literal bodies in its wake and the disappearance of billions of dollars in savings and long term accounts. A friend tipped me off about the book that inspired the documentary, so naturally, I queued that up on my TBR immediately.
I think watching the show and reading the book in parallel helped my understanding of the both the people involved and the execution of the fraud. With its interviews and depictions, Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street definitely focuses more on the human element while Madoff Talks does a good job distilling the finances, economics, and (lack of) governmental oversight that made a fraud this huge possible.
MADOFF TALKS: Uncovering the Untold Story Behind the Most Notorious Ponzi Scheme in History by Jim Campbell (2021)
Genre: Adult non-fiction
Year Released: 2021
Trigger warnings: Suicide, antisemitism, workplace sexual harassment, death by cancer, fraud
Told in interviews, emails, transcripts, and financial definitions, this is an almost definitive account of the rise and fall of Bernard “Bernie” Madoff, a man who ran a successful above-board investment firm while at the same time coordinated the largest Ponzi scheme in American history.
The names and concepts were something that existed in the abstract of my high school mind at the time. But given an adulthood interest in white collar crime, I had to give this a read, especially since many in my age bracket are still feeling the ripple effects of the 2008 stock market crash in general which is the only reason that the scheme even got discovered.
One of the critiques I saw off the bat for the book is how much it reads like a financial textbook. To be honest, that’s one aspect I appreciated about it because understanding the economics and financial theory are essential to understanding the full extent and execution of this fraud. The utter failure of the SEC to see the problems also gave me a special kind of rage, and Campbell seems aware that reading this account will give readers in general the same emotional response. I like the way he threaded the story together where, yes, Madoff very much is at a fault for the fraud, but blame also needs to fall on the bank supporting him and the government institutions which utterly failed to dole out consequences for forty years.
The part that will stick with me are how all Ponzi schemes are essentially affinity frauds, because in order to pull off a Ponzi, you need to be targeting members of an identifiable group, which in this case, was the Jewish population of New York and Florida, including notables like Elie Wiesel. This book does not touch too much on that cultural and social context, but it goes very much into the interpersonal relationships on an individual level between Bernie and his employees. Sometimes it lacks a bit of finesse, but the core content is there.
Overall, thorough in helping the understanding of the economics and finances that went into the collapse.
Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street
Show link: Netflix
Trigger warnings same as for the book, but also a trigger warning for 9/11 Footage
The show based on the aforementioned book goes way more into the cultural context, especially around Madoff’s backstory that might have informed his own decision-making. I’m usually not a fan of reenactments but because there was no dialogue among the actors, I didn’t mind it so much. The skits mostly enhanced voice overs, and I found that to be a very good use of the medium and actors cast. The face-claims were a bit uncanny, but not distracting.
This also proved to be very thorough and also gave relevant “world news” coverage, specifically with how the 9/11 2001 attacks siphoned government resources from investigating white collar crime. But that’s not the only excuse for the SEC not discovering the Ponzi sooner. This documentary also features interviews from the people investigating and uncovering the Ponzi, which adds another layer of insight and depth to the entire situation.
I found it compelling and incredibly thorough for a four-hour miniseries. It doesn’t touch as much on the “where does the government go from here” aspect, but it dives deep into the office and financial politics behind the whole scheme.