Madoff Victim Alexandra Penney on ‘Chasing Madoff’

Madoff victim Alexandra Penney says the new documentary ‘Chasing Madoff’ is portrait of a whistleblower.

What the hell, it was a free movie. The chance to earn a minimal writing stipend. (Small change is a windfall for the bag lady.) And it was a slow week in August. So I said “why not?” to reviewing Chasing Madoff, a new documentary about the motherf*cker—hereafter, the MF.

A blob of blood, a blue steel handgun, and raging flames are the background to the overly dramatic opening credits of Chasing Madoff. Then the MF’s face comes onscreen, and those horrible, malevolent eyes stare at me. But it was only at the sight of the MF’s familiar monthly black-and-white computer- spewed statements showing how “absolutely safe” nest eggs like mine were, growing by 6 to 9 percent, when my heart started pounding with fury—again after all these years. I have made a conscious effort never to think of him, although every day of my life is tattooed with the fallout of losing my life’s savings to that sociopathic creep.

It’s really not a film about the MF. The story centers on Harry Markopolos (pronounced Marco Pol-is), a compulsive, weirdo guy who, as a young investment banker, figured out the fraud 10 years ago. The numbers Markopolis calculated showed that, if Madoff's options trading was legit, he'd be batting .984. Repeated efforts to warn the SEC met with resounding and astounding failures.

On December 8, 2008, at 6:22 p.m., as I was making a Grand Marnier soufflé for a small dinner party, my son called from California to tell me that they had arrested Bernard Madoff for admitting he had run the world’s largest Ponzi scheme. I was a Madoff casualty. My life would be changed forever. You have to have gone through it to know what it was like: I do not want to remember the terrifying, unbelievable, crushing panic that paralyzed me down to the cellular level.

It was only a few days later that my rage was focused on the Securities and Exchange Commission: why didn’t they investigate after Markopolos laid out the entire fraud, replete with numbers and witnesses. Markopolos had done all the digging, the SEC just had to stop it, and they didn’t even have to do much work. Those boobs simply happened not to notice his letters—and his overwhelming proof. The SEC is part of the United States government, and supposedly a Wall Street watchdog, there to protect citizen investors—us. What an effing joke that was, and probably still is.

Chasing Madoff goes into detail about the SEC’s stupefying failures (plural), and it is in the scenes of the House committee investigating these breakdowns where the movie really provokes the viewer’s wrath. We see Representative Gary Ackerman (my personal hero) getting angrier and angrier at the SEC principals. I only wish there were more in the government, and in the film, like him.

To the credit of the filmmakers, the portrait of Markopolis is not that of a one-dimensional do-gooder and many questions about his odd personality and his present occupations remain nebulous. He’s presented as a gun-toting, increasingly paranoid man who instructs his wife to stand at the stairs with a shotgun ready to wham anyone (SEC people, MF’s hoodlums) who invades the house looking to off her husband. And it’s Markopolis who says, if necessary, “I was going to kill Madoff.” (Inexplicably he pronounces it Mad-Off as in Mad Men.) I loved that bit of drama, but with all that’s going on in Somalia and Syria and Libya, murdering the MF seems like a not-very-big-deal objective today.

If you’re a “victim,” I don’t think this movie is for you. It will incense you all over again, and with the myriad other troubles you’re grappling with, who needs that… But if you want to see an interesting, multifaceted rendering of a whistleblower who reminds us all that it is critical to step forward and “do the right thing,” go take a serious look. The film is dedicated to “the victims of the next financial disaster.” I am praying the SEC and Wall Street have learned their lessons, but I’ll bet my last bag-lady penny against that—big time.

Speaking of money, it’s been amazingly easy to give up the “luxe life.” I’ve stripped down expenses to the smallest of nubbins. I eschew taxis and take subways. I’ve relinquished manicures, Starbucks, fancy cheeses, most dry-cleaning, and eating out, except for the occasional Chinese cheapo. J.Crew, Zara, and Uniqlo have replaced Prada, Saint Laurent, and Louboutins.

Although I was fortunate to receive some cash (from SPIC funds for investors who have been burned by fraud), I’m beset by terrifying waking dreams of various catastrophes. I spent the last year with a max of three hours sleep and a lot of raw panic about not having a financial cushion. I saw several shrinks and even a hypnotist. Nothing worked. Miraculously, in the last few weeks my internal clock has reset to 5:30 a.m. But mostly I’m happy and lucky because I’m still doing art, an area where you can’t lose anything. Except your sanity.