February 25, 1999
Going After Generation Next
Three young leaders and how they go involved
There's a bit of dialogue that Ben Younger wrote for his first film, "Boiler Room," that sums up the slippery morality of the hotshot young stockbrokers whose world he examines:
"My father once asked me where my work ethic is. Looking back now, I realized that wasn't the problem. I had a very strong work ethic. My problem was my ethics at work."
"Boiler rooms" are semi-legitimate brokerage houses located primarily on Long Island, New York, whose workaholic salesmen sell IPO (initial public offering) stock the way telemarketers hawk tools or kitchen knives.
They promise big profits and are convincing enough to reel in a sizable clientele.
The only problem is that it's a con. The IPOs are from bogus companies, which means the only people making a profit are traders (who earn exorbitantly high commissions) and their bosses, who rig the stock sales so that they reap a healthy profit at their clients' expense.
Younger first became aware of this subculture when he attended a boiler room recruitment seminar. He was excited, but for very different reasons than the eager young men around him.
"As soon as I walked into this room," he says, "it was unbelievable. I knew immediately that this was going to be the first film I was going to write."
He had the determination to back up that instinct. Even though he's only 27, Ben Younger already has several careers behind him. With a political science degree from the City College of New York, he went right into the political arena. After working on Assemblyman Alan Hevesi's successful bid to become comptroller of New York City, Younger worked for him as a senior policy analyst. He then served as campaign manager for Democrat Melinda Katz, who won a seat on the New York State Assembly.
Then Younger decided it was time to pursue an even more elusive profession: filmmaking. He supported himself working as a film crew technician, while he spent a year interviewing boiler room brokers.
"Normally I would have to [go undercover] to get into the world," Younger explains, "but these guys were so eager to tell me what they did -- how illegal it was -- that I didn't have to play that game. They wanted the notoriety."
What he discovered was a new breed of salesmen who target specific groups (like midwestern doctors) with the seductive promise of instant wealth courtesy of the raging bull market.
"At least when [salesmen] went door-to-door," he says, "if you were selling Bibles or vacuum cleaners, you had to look somebody in the eye. What's interesting about these guys is they can screw somebody out of 50 grand [anonymously]."
The dynamics of the boiler room have levels of exploitation. While it functions as a concerted effort to part suckers from their money, the brokers are often not fully conscious of the complexity of the scam.
That's the case with the film's Jewish main character, Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi), a 19-year-old college dropout who is intelligent, but easily seduced by the lure of quick money. Seth's moral dilemma is played out through his relationship with his father (Ron Rifkin), a judge who maintains a yawning emotional distance. "My generation has an extended emotional capacity," says Younger, "compared to -- at least in my community -- our eastern European parents. A lot of my friends were brought up by hard-core eastern European Jews. So I explored that juxtaposition, of my generation and the one prior. Seth is trying to make a connection, but his father responds to him by saying, 'Our relationship? Am I your girlfriend?' That's a typical answer you would find in that world."
Ben Younger, who grew up in Staten Island and Brooklyn (where he still lives), was raised in a modern Orthodox family. His mother is a psychotherapist and father, who died seven years ago, was a CPA.
"I'm an Ashkenazi Jew," he explains, "the firstborn Younger in this country. My father was born in Budapest. I went to yeshiva my whole life, went to synagogue every week, kept kosher."
Seth and his boiler room mentor are both Jewish, and Younger infused their feelings of isolation with his own memories.