Sam Bankman-Fried’s ‘young, eccentric billionaire’ shtick was just another part of the grift

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Of all the surprising things to have come out of the build-up to the trial of Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the now defunct FTX cryptocurrency exchange, the most surprising, perhaps, is just how thoroughly the world bought in to his rise. Bankman-Fried’s guilt on multiple charges of, among other things, wire fraud, securities fraud, commodities fraud and money laundering has yet to be determined, but the presence of the 31-year-old former wunderkind in court at all, is, of course, part of a long history of feted boy geniuses falling to earth and seeming suddenly ludicrous. Bankman-Fried fit precisely into the mould beloved of tech and wealth magazines for young men in the unicorn business space. Before he cut his hair and located a suit for this week’s appearance in a Manhattan federal court, he was flamboyantly scruffy, a man worth, on paper at least, billions of dollars who nonetheless wore scabby old trainers and shapeless cargo shorts. He was spectacularly rude, playing video games while conducting live television interviews and failing to turn up to appointments set months in advance. Looked at through the lens of, as Forbes magazine described Bankman-Fried in 2021, “the world’s richest 29-year-old,” all of these tics were received as charming indicators of brilliance. Regarded through the slightly less dewy goggles of seven conspiracy and fraud counts, they appear somewhat differently. It is curious to hold up the rise and fall of Bankman-Fried against other business gurus whose vast personal wealth was at least partly staked on the cult of personality around them. Adam Neumann, who co-founded WeWork in 2010, who was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people in 2018, and was ousted as head of the company in 2019, is a lot sharper in outline than Bankman-Fried, but luxuriated in, and to some degree monetised, his own eccentricity to a similar degree. The man behind the disastrous Fyre festival, Billy McFarland, who was released from prison last year after pleading guilty to fraud, was a low-rent grifter who nonetheless created an electricity around himself that sucked in large numbers of innocent nepo babies just looking for a nice weekend away. Elizabeth Holmes, currently serving a nine-year sentence on various fraud charges, in some ways fits this same mould – she certainly had cult-leader status within her blood-testing company, Theranos. Even Holmes, however, felt some obligation to conform to expectations governing female behaviour. She didn’t slob about in stained jeans and trainers, or appear in public without makeup. Famously, she altered her voice to give the impression of gravitas. For young men in her position, it is, oddly, often a stronger marker of confidence to be flippant and glib or inarticulate and monosyllabic than to be seen to be Trying Too Hard. The rules governing male and female grift are, as in all other contexts, slightly different. As a rule, not only is the bad or babyish behaviour of startup billionaires indulged by the people around them, this behaviour becomes, in and of itself, celebrated as somehow intrinsic to their success. The dynamics are, in some ways, an extension of basic laws governing celebrity; once a certain bar is cleared and a momentum gathered, an individual becomes surrounded by sycophants and enablers who normalise behaviour that results in the death or massive loss in value of the company. And so the money disappears and bankruptcy beckons. Or the money doesn’t entirely disappear but the company collapses. The self-belief of the founders, meanwhile, never appears entirely to dissipate. McFarland is reportedly working on Fyre festival II. Adam Neumann, who it should be emphasised has never been charged with any crime, is still very wealthy and apparently working on a new company called Flow, which – prepare to smile, nastily – he describes as a “residential consumer-facing real estate company”. The fate of Bankman-Fried, who pleaded not guilty to all charges, has yet to be decided, although three of his former colleagues struck plea deals and are expected to testify against him. Watching old interviews with him this week – eyes skating, voice squeaking, T-shirt loose around his neck – had the effect that these stories at their conclusion often do, which was to trigger an incredulity he was ever taken seriously at all. Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist

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