“That was dead-on balls accurate.”
An anonymous stock broker offered this assessment outside a recent screening of the soon-to-be-released film Boiler Room . But before he could elaborate, he was whisked away by his friends, who feared that as a veteran of a sleazy brokerage like the one depicted in the film, he was risking his ill-gotten riches and his hard-won employment at a legitimate firm by sharing his thoughts.
The movie is premiering at the Sundance film festival on Jan. 28 and isn’t due to open in Manhattan until Feb. 18. But already the goons on the trading desks on Wall Street are looking forward to it. They want it to be their movie. They haven’t had one, not since Wall Street . They need some new lines.
The audience at the midtown screening was full of brokers and traders. But most of them had never worked at a place like J.T. Marlin, Boiler Room ‘s fictional brokerage. They worked for established firms like Paine Webber Group Inc. and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. J.T. Marlin is a bucket shop, a churn-and-burn operation just off the Long Island Expressway where 20-something brokers earn huge commissions by unloading crappy stock on gullible clients. They pump up the price, then dump their own shares, leaving customers with worthless stock. Think of the mob-run pump-and-dump outfit in The Sopranos . Think of A.R. Baron, D.H. Blair, Whale Securities or any number of obscure little firms that have run afoul of regulators in recent years. They are the bull market’s underbelly, its raw, greedy essence. They are the real hustlers, without pretense.
Thirteen years have passed since Oliver Stone gave Wall Street its most memorable icon, Gordon Gekko, and all his Op-Ed-ready dictums about greed and lunch. Somehow, since then, a decade of stock mania has gone unnoticed by Hollywood. The culture at the center of the wealth creation machine has escaped the myth makers.
Boiler Room , written and directed by first-time filmmaker Ben Younger, tells the story of Seth Davis, a young college dropout from Queens who goes to work for J.T. Marlin and experiences firsthand the crude sales tactics and lavish life styles of its sales force. Mr. Younger spent a year researching this world, then wrote his picture. It isn’t going to win too many awards; it is simplistic, slapdash and a little goofy. But it captures the swagger and the patter of the young obnoxious stock-hawkers perfectly.
There’s a scene in the movie in which Seth, played by Saving Private Ryan medic Giovanni Ribisi, visits the house of one of his new colleagues. The house is immense but unfurnished (with the exception of a tanning bed in the dining room). The traders are gathered in a spare room off the kitchen, watching Wall Street on a giant TV set. It is the famous “Lunch is for wimps” scene in Gordon Gekko’s office. One by one, the brokers watching the movie-among them Ben Affleck and Vin Diesel-begin to recite the lines along with Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen. Then they chant along with the movie like a Greek chorus.
But Boiler Room has some new dictums for their real-life counterparts: “Don’t pitch the bitch” (meaning, Never sell stock to women); “Act as if” (meaning, “Act as if you’ve got a nine-inch cock”); and selling stock is “the white-boy way of slinging crack rock” (meaning, It will make you rich fast).
“A friend’s firm that I visited was exactly like this one,” a Paine Webber broker said after the screening. “It was on Long Island. The parking lot was full of Porsches, BMW’s, Ferraris. There were a hundred guys in there. Every single one of them was under 25. Most of them were just high school graduates. They were all wearing Rolexes.”
“I was similar to the kid in the movie,” said a 30-year-old trader at a major firm who started out in a bucket shop. He was speaking from his trading floor, the day after seeing a working print of Boiler Room . “I was going to law school. There was a kid I knew from college who said, ‘What are you doing in law school?’ He was making half a million dollars, and he was out of college a year. I said, ‘What the fuck, you kidding me?’ I went to check it out.
“When I first got there, I didn’t know anything. I was just intrigued by how much money these guys were making. I was looking at them and saying, ‘They’re idiots. I’m a lot more intelligent than they are. If these guys can make this kind of money, then I’m sure I can.’ At first, it was fun, the thrill of closing someone, making sales on the phone. It was a rush. We had limousine trips. Our boss took us out to dinner, champagne, Dom Pérignon. A couple of them were fucking around with the other shit. It was a good life, for a 21-, 22-year-old kid. You think you’re a superstar.
“But it wasn’t long before I caught on to what the whole deal was, and what these guys were doing. And it wasn’t something I wanted to be associated with. My morals were just like, No way.”
He got out. A friend got him a job at a real firm. He was lucky. The boiler room firm got busted and went belly-up.
The papers are full of wire items detailing the penalties faced by such brokerages, but so far no one figure has emerged as a face for this generation.
Two years ago, a former broker named Scott Gilman approached a writer named Timothy Harper. Mr. Gilman wanted Mr. Harper to help him write a book about his experiences as a bucket-shop broker. They got a contract from Harper Collins. Then, just before the book was to be published, Mr. Gilman pulled out. When the book, License to Steal: The Secret World of Wall Street and the Systematic Plundering of the American Investor , came out in November, the co-author’s name had been changed to “Anonymous,” and details in the book had been altered, even though Mr. Gilman’s name had been printed six months earlier in a Publishers Weekly item about the book. Forbes and 60 Minutes were told that he was no longer available for interviews. “He wanted to be famous, but then for whatever reason he changed his mind,” Mr. Harper said. (He would not confirm that Mr. Gilman was Anonymous.) “But I don’t really know why he came to me in the first place or why he backed out.” Mr. Gilman could not be reached.
The biggest legend of the bucket-shop world may be Al Palagonia, the top salesman at now-defunct D.H. Blair. “Al would run the morning meeting, kind of like Ben Affleck in the movie,” recalled one former Blair broker. “He’d play the Rocky theme, just trying to get everyone all pumped up to get on the phones.” In 1997, his hard-sell tactics got him sanctioned and fined by securities regulators. He was banned from the industry. (His basketball team was also banned from a West Side night league, after they started a brawl.) But Spike Lee, who sat next to Mr. Palagonia at Knicks games in Madison Square Garden, cast him as the sleazy agent in He Got Game and as one of the thugs in Summer of Sam . Al Palagonia may have made it to the big screen, but the legend of Al Palagonia did not.
Boiler Room wants to give its audience some real Al Palagonias. But instead of Al Palagonia it has Ben Affleck. And Ben Affleck is no Al Palagonia.