When I watched Boiler Room for the first time around its release in 2000, I never imagined that I’d still be thinking about it on a near-daily basis 22 years later. I don’t necessarily think that’s because Boiler Room is a landmark artistic achievement, though it is a pretty good movie — the kind of unpretentious genre thriller that Manny Farber would’ve called “termite art,” burrowing into its subject matter with a singular, relentless focus.
I remember it more for what it was about, and the fact that its relentless focus (the product of then 28-year-old writer/director Ben Younger) was turned upon a “pump-and-dump” scheme (it also contains easily one of Vin Diesel’s best performances). I find myself constantly thinking about it because what was once a semi-niche financial crime, tailor-made for a slick genre thriller, seems to have gone not only mainstream in the years since, but nigh inescapable. The con that was once pitched over an aggressive phone call from a sweaty outer-borough pseudo frat house (the “boiler room” of the title) is now advertised during the Super Bowl. It’s discussed on late night television.
Boiler Room stars Giovanni Ribisi as Seth Davis, a comfortable suburban Jewish kid from Queens who gets drawn into the world of shady stock schemes, mostly out of a desire to escape his dull, predictable, upper-middle-class existence. He craves status. But, as he puts it, “I’m not a lottery winner. I tried ‘slinging crack rock’ and I never had a jump shot.”
Just as his home casino idea starts to become more trouble than it’s worth, Seth, in an attempt to “go straight,” gets himself a job at the intense, curiously low rent/high return brokerage firm “JT Marlin.” It’s there he gets a crash course in pumping and dumping — talking up a stock to rubes and whales to get them to buy in, thus artificially inflating the stocks’ value, so that those bankrolling the firm can then dump that same stock, which they already owned, having bought in for pennies. This inevitably sends the stock plummeting, wiping out their clients’ savings. Seth, and even his mentor, Greg Weinstein, are mostly ignorant of the latter part of this scheme, at least at first, having failed to question their own windfalls.
These days, JT Marlin doesn’t need Seth Davis. It has Larry David, Lebron James, Spike Lee, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tom Brady, and yes, Matt Damon, whose famous “fortune favors the brave” ad had the misfortune of coming out just before the price of Bitcoin reached its peak. Almost anyone famous who could read a teleprompter and cash a check seems to have shilled for cryptocurrency or NFTs at some point in the past year. Since its Damon-puffed peak (sorry, Matt) Bitcoin is down around 50%. Though it should be noted that I started writing this post when crypto was merely in a mild slump, and as of this paragraph it seems to be in a full-on freefall. I’m not going to predict where it will be when I eventually finish the last paragraph, or when my editor publishes this.
If you bought $1000 of a bitcoin ETF when Matt Damon's "Fortune Favors the Brave!" crypto ad premiered on October 28 last year, you would now have $554. pic.twitter.com/qgeVmGYZw7
— Jon Schwarz (@schwarz) May 9, 2022
in non-elon news coinbase just lost a quarter of its market cap in one day, brutal pic.twitter.com/29mzH5Herp
— rat king (@MikeIsaac) May 10, 2022
For non-crypto people, Luna is a so-called “stablecoin.” The idea is it’s supposed to counter the volatility of the market. It’s propped up by crypto hedge funds.
It’s now worth a penny.
— Brianna Wu (@BriannaWu) May 12, 2022
It was strange to watch a pattern I already recognized from a movie play out in real life, with uncanny similarity. Boiler Room not only presaged today’s crop of prestige TV, when almost every new show seems to be about a colorful, real-life white collar sociopath running an inventive amoral scam — The Dropout, Inventing Anna, Super Pumped, WeCrashed — it’s also shocking the degree to which it, in all its termite-like burrowing, it nailed both the mindset and the method of this particular scam.
Don’t Pitch The Bitch
The first rule (and I stress, this was the FIRST RULE) Seth gets from his mentor is “don’t pitch the bitch.”
Even in the year 2000 (a particularly un-PC era, when you couldn’t turn on a television after midnight without seeing a Girls Gone Wild infomercial), Seth’s initial response to this question is something like “Whoa, buddy, that seems a little problematic, are you sure you mean what you say here?”
Instead, Greg makes it even more blunt. “We don’t sell stock to women.” (Ah, okay, I guess you did mean exactly what it sounded like, carry on).
“We don’t sell stock to women. I don’t care who it is, we don’t do it. Nancy Sinatra calls, you tell her you’re sorry. They’re a constant pain in the ass and you’re never going to hear the end of it alright? They’re going to call you every fucking day wanting to know why the stock is dropping and God forbid the stock should go up, you’re going to hear from them every fucking 15 minutes. It’s just not worth it, don’t pitch the bitch.” — Greg Weinstein, Boiler Room
It’s been hard, these past six months or so, not to think of this scene almost every time I turned on my television. After watching the Miami Heat take a run at the playoffs from the FTX Arena (the naming rights bought last March for $135 million), you can (still) catch a game break presented by Coinbase. After that, you can throw on a Formula 1 race or a UFC fight, both sponsored by Crypto.com (for $100 million and $175 million, respectively) — with a logo on every fighter’s post-fight shirt (they’re no longer able to have their own apparel sponsors like back in the olden days) and the side of every Octagon. If you’re a UFC fighter or a Sacramento King, you can even get your salary paid in cryptocurrency (though after the past few weeks I doubt many would want that).
Funny how you don’t see nearly as many Crypto ads during the Real Housewives or Below Deck Sailing Yacht. What could possibly explain this discrepancy? Easy: the world still has JT Marlins, and their trainees are still learning not to “pitch the bitch.”
Actually, it’s a little unclear whether there still are trainees. The crypto economy (or “web3,” if we’re being more inclusive here) seems to have streamlined the process. There’s no longer any need for a cold call or for the people who would make them. Now crypto billionaires can just hire Matt Damon and Dana White. The rubes probably don’t have landlines these days, but they do have TVs.
Maybe the sheer volume of money floating around should’ve been a clue. Why would companies spend enough money to afford Super Bowl ads starring the biggest stars on Earth to promote what was supposedly an investment opportunity? An investment with legitimate value probably wouldn’t need all that hype. But if it was an essentially worthless penny stock, like the ones JT Marlin was trading, and someone owned a bunch of them… well, if you’ve seen the movie, you know the rest.
Likewise, Boiler Room‘s brokers notably projected an air of legitimacy, of being financial industry insiders while working in an office somewhere out in the relative boondocks (“The office was a good hour away from Wall Street. Somebody forgot to tell the guys who worked there though,” Seth says in a voiceover). Should it have been a clue, in retrospect, that so many crypto companies were spending hundreds of millions of dollars to name American arenas and dominate its main cultural products while themselves being headquartered in regulation havens like Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Bahamas?
PM and DPM met and greeted former US President Bill Clinton, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, and FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried at the Crypto Bahamas Conference this week.
Also pictured chatting with the group is Bahamian former NBA player Rick Fox.
(BIS Photos/Kemuel Stubbs) pic.twitter.com/PN30VVAwt3
— Our News Bahamas (@OurNewsRev) April 29, 2022
She Would’ve Done The Same To You
Boiler Room was released in a pre-2008 crash, pre-9/11 era when American institutions, at least compared to the ones millennials and zoomers and younger came of age with, seemed pretty solid. Seth’s craving for the high life could be blamed mostly on entitlement, on a desire to be “special,” rather than precarity or fear of scarcity (his father, notably, is a prominent judge). A lot of late 90s films took this tone. “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars,” as Fight Club‘s narrator put it.
The 2000 and 2008 crashes, and years of seemingly solid institutions crumbling underfoot have only hardened the dog-eat-dog worldview espoused in Boiler Room among my own generation. One of its enduring scenes was Ben Affleck’s big speech to trainees. “You want vacation time? Go teach third grade, public school,” he memorably unloads, on a room full of awed trainees barely old enough to shave.
Affleck’s character is 27. “You know what that makes me here? A f*ckin’ senior citizen.”
The crypto economy was similarly youth and young-man driven. A profile of FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried was titled “Portrait of a 29-year-old billionaire.”
Surely the intention of the Affleck scene, as with Oliver Stone’s in Wall Street, was to depict these characters as amoral psychos. And just as with “greed is good,” almost as soon as it was released, Affleck’s “anyone who tells you money doesn’t buy happiness doesn’t fucking have any” speech, meant to satirize mindless grasping, was invoked as aspirational. It began to be used, basically, as a pump-up jam for brokers, cold callers, and multi-level marketers everywhere.
I spent some of my first post-college years in the pre-crash aughts, just after this movie came out, when its worldview felt fresher and less like an echo. When you felt like an idiot for not getting on board with the latest scam, slinging sub-prime mortgages or sketchy refis or whatever. A friend of mine at the time worked as a cold caller for an online college where the Ben Affleck speech was frequently sent around as a motivational tool. On one call, he eventually broke down and told a cautiously intrigued elderly woman that, you know what, she probably didn’t need to spend thousands of dollars of her savings learning how to sell things on the internet, which she didn’t even have at that point. At which point his supervisor, listening in on the other line took him aside. He demanded to know why he hadn’t taken her money when she was practically giving it away. The friend said he didn’t feel right doing it, because, essentially, it seemed cruel. To which the supervisor screamed, “She would’ve done the same to you!”
This, I think, is the worldview underpinning most of the boom-and-bust cycles ever since. I doubt many people who hyped crypto and NFTs genuinely believed they were promoting a societal good, or even that these investments had any intrinsic value. For people like Jimmy Fallon or Paris Hilton, who famously showed us their apes on late night TV, I assume they either got them at a discounted rate with the assumption they would talk about them publicly (which is illegal if it’s not disclosed), or had web3-optimistic business managers who did it. Either way, talking them up was all upside for them. Buying in low (presumably) they could only stand to benefit, inflating the value of a thing they owned (though I use the term “thing” loosely here).
— CoinDesk (@CoinDesk) December 11, 2021
Most people buying crypto and NFTs weren’t celebrities or insiders though. They were more or less gamblers, trying not to miss out on the latest quick buck. Can you really blame them? I think they probably saw it mostly for what it was: a scam, and they just wanted to be on the right side of one for once. To scam and not be scammed. In the absence of being able to produce anything worthwhile, this has become the new American Dream.
It was Seth’s dream in Boiler Room, only at some point he realized the error of his ways, spending the entire third act of the movie trying to get back a grocery store buyer’s life savings he’d grifted, as an act of penance. In retrospect, this might be the most Hollywood part of the story of all.