“One of my problems was I always wanted to please everybody,” said Bernard Madoff in a 2017 deposition when trying to articulate his reasons for running the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. Given that he defrauded thousands of investors of a collective $19bn, ruined charities and tore apart his family, you wonder what might’ve happened had he not been such a benevolent people-person.
This rare moment of introspection comes courtesy of Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street, an insightful, incensing new Netflix docuseries. Over four episodes, director Joe Berlinger draws on the contributions of investigators, economists, former colleagues and the late Madoff himself (in clips from the deposition) to tell the story of how a one-time Nasdaq chair was able to operate a sprawling criminal racket for at least two decades until his arrest in 2008. While doing so, the show also tries to make sense of the psychological constitution of the so-called “financial sociopath”.
The first episode provides much of the illuminating character study as it chronicles Madoff’s formative experiences and his rise from son of a struggling businessman to penny-stock trader to a Midas-like Wall Street statesman. What then follows is a comprehensive, true crime-style survey of how Madoff built his scheme and the “stagecraft” required to make his false investments and fabricated profits seem legitimate. Perhaps fearing that the material might be too dry, Berlinger superfluously supplements the interviews with several dramatised scenes — most of which revolve around a Madoff lookalike chomping on a cigar like a B-movie villain.
The series is at its most compelling when it places Madoff’s monstrousness within the context of the systemic self-interest and greed that allowed him to flourish. Despite concerns raised from some corners of the industry, Madoff continued to profit from the seemingly wilful myopia of the banks and hedge funds he traded with, as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission regulator (which closed an investigation into his operations in 2006 after finding insufficient evidence of serious wrongdoing). Madoff wanted to please everybody and everybody, it appears, wanted to be pleased by him.
On Netflix now