© 2020 Arizent. All rights reserved.

What Hollywood gets right and wrong about financial advisors

Register now

In the first moments of “Ozark,” a new Netflix drama featuring a financial advisor, Martin Byrde, played by Jason Bateman, sits quietly in his office listening to a newlywed couple talk about their financial goals. For a brief moment, viewers get a peek into real-life financial planning —it’s a mundane meeting where advisor and client talk about goals, projections and whether houses with pools are a good investment.

It quickly becomes clear, though, that this isn’t a show about helping people achieve their financial dreams. Within three minutes, the camera pans to Byrde’s desk, where he’s watching a video taken of his wife engaged in an extramarital affair.

At the four-minute mark, his bombastic partner bursts into the room, and says that they’re about to stop taking new clients. If the couple wanted to work with the firm, they’d have to invest $5,000 right away. Of course, they happily agree.

Brash and bumbling? Or genuinely caring? Truth and fiction are blurred in depictions of planners in movies and TV shows.
December 14

Before the first episode is over, we find out that Byrde is laundering money for a Mexican drug lord, who forces his family to move from Chicago to the Ozarks, a down-on-its-luck lake community where he keeps laundering cash for the increasingly threatening kingpin.

It’s certainly an entertaining show and viewers like Bateman’s portrayal of a narcissistic, but surprisingly fiscally-responsible advisor (the show has a 92% audience score from review site Rotten Tomatoes).

But does it resemble what advisors really do in any way?

“I have never had a Mexican drug lord come to me and say can you help me launder money,” says Nicholas Vail, an advisor with Indianapolis’ Integrity Wealth Advisors.

Most financial professionals would likely say the same thing. While there are corrupt people in every industry, Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” mantra in the movie “Wall Street,” is not the motto most advisors would say they live by. No one’s using “Blue Horseshoe loves Anacott Steel” style messages, like Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox did to kick off an insider trade, either.

While shows and films like “Ozark,” HBO’s “Ballers,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and even Eddie Murphy’s comedic sendup of a stock broker in “Trading Places” are entertaining to watch, they bear nearly no resemblance to the day-to-day work of an advisor, which is mostly hammering out financial plans, calling clients and — for the ones who invest — buying exchange-traded or mutual funds rather than the hot new stock.

Of course, who would want to watch a show about what advisors really do everyday? “If you think about the sort of quantitative research-oriented, evidence-based work that a good advisor does, then that would be the most boring show ever,” says Rob Cucchiaro, a Danville, California-based advisor with Summit Wealth & Retirement Partners.

The movies get a lot of things wrong — client parties are usually wine and cheese events these days, with no hard drugs in sight — but one characteristic that advisors may take issue with is that the profession is all about the sale. In “Ballers,” a show about an ex-NFLer-turned-advisor, Spencer Strasmore, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, spends most of his time trying to boost his book of business by signing up football-playing clients.

Unlike in nearly every other film that features an advisor or money manager, Strasmore seems to have his clients’ best interests at heart. He’s genuinely trying to make their lives better, partly by giving them financial advice (though his suggestion that people lease their boats and cars instead of buying them is questionable), but also by ensuring they’re not drinking too heavily or getting into bar fights.

However, he’s often seen hustling for new work rather than doing any financial planning. “I don’t see them doing much work ever,” says Keith Finkelstein, managing director of MarketStrats, a Cape Coral, Florida-based financial advisory firm. “They’re always prospecting in the form of partying. I’ve seen people do more prospecting through golf than anything.”

Other than in “Ozark,” where Bateman comes off as more of a nerdy number-crunching intellectual, most of Hollywood’s advisors are also portrayed as bombastic, wealthy loudmouths who are only out to make money for themselves. In real life? The average financial advisor’s annual mean wage is $123,100, according to salary information the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“They’re always wearing $3,000 suits in these shows, they have slicked-back hair and they’re driving Lamborghinis,” says Vail. “It perpetuates this idea that we’re trying to make a lot of money for ourselves. I drive a Kia Optima.”

It’s not all made up, though. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is about the real-life Jordan Belfort. “Wall Street” is based on several insider-trading scandals that happened in the mid-1980s. And some trigger-happy investment-focused advisors may relate to “Boiler Room,” the movie about a brokerage firm engaged in a pump-and-dump scheme.

“The Boiler Room type culture is still there at bigger companies,” says Finkelstein. “It’s like that more when you’re young and starting out — it’s about the next sale and pushing people into the highest revenue product.”

If there’s any film that gets the role of the advisor close to correct, says Finklestein, it’s “The Big Short,” which is based on actual people who warned against (and betted on) the 2008 subprime meltdown. While not technically a financial advisor, Christian Bale’s portrayal of Michael Burry, who is mostly seen in his office, does manage money on behalf of his hedge fund clients.

The pressure he faces for holding onto an unpopular investment — he bets against the subprime market — is something many advisors can relate to. “He was wrong for so long before he was right and that’s exactly how it is,” says Cucchiaro. “Most mutual funds are not closet indexers, so they look different from the benchmark and have a high tracking error. You could have a situation where it looks like something’s wrong with a strategy, but then it turns around. That was portrayed right.”

Cucchiaro does worry about how these hard-partying, compliance-breaking advisors who regularly ignore their fiduciary duties impact the way potential clients see the profession. “I wonder if people watch this and think they’ll be better off to do it themselves,” he says. “I don’t know the impact, but I’m pretty sure it’s not positive.”

Still, he happily admits that he watches as many financial shows as he can. “It’s entertaining,” he says. “But I can’t think of a single one where an advisor is portrayed in a really positive light.”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.