The Bastard Sons Of Tom Vu

Digging into the scuzzy infomercial roots of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and PAIN & GAIN.

Two of 2013’s best films couldn't have more disparate pedigrees, but both spring from a shared bit of DNA, birthed and metastasized from the late 80s ethos that you’re entitled as an American to whatever you can get your hands on. Playing by the rules is for losers; take what you want; the world is yours, like Tony Montana said. If you don’t have the courage to go after your dreams by any means necessary, you deserve to fail. It’s a mindset that is portrayed in both films as cartoonishly criminal, completely over the top. It’s part of what makes the factual basis of the events so delicious. Scarface is one thing, but holy shit, these people were REAL.

The respective non-fiction origins of The Wolf Of Wall Street and Pain & Gain led many a Twitter pundit to quip things like “Mark Wahlberg's Pain & Gain character probably attended a seminar by Jordan Belfort.” While that’s most likely chronologically impossible, there is an explicit connection between the two characters. Michael Bay’s film posits that maybe Wahlberg’s Danny Lugo DID attend a seminar by 90s infomercial millionaire Tom Vu. And as you can see from the video below, Jordan Belfort - Martin Scorsese’s iteration of Jordan Belfort, at any rate - almost certainly bit his infomercial game from Vu, right down to the helicopter and the yacht crawling with bikini models.

Tuan Ahn Vu was a Vietnamese immigrant who arrived in America in 1975 and worked his way into the real estate market. Fourteen or so years later Tom Vu exploded onto the late-night infomercial circuit, surrounded by bikini-clad women, driving a Rolls Royce, and confronting the viewer: “You want to be wealthy like this? Like I am? Well, you need to come to my seminar!” Vu’s free seminars promoted not-free seminars, where he would charge attendees up to $15,000 to learn his million-dollar real estate secrets- practices which mainly consisted of buying out homeowners drowning in debt, and flipping the houses for a quick profit. Vu’s seminars were filled with ethnically diverse crowds, buoyed by Vu’s own immigrant rags-to-riches tale and looking to fast-track their own American Dream.

Whether you bought into his pitch or not, Vu made an impression. In these days before YouTube, friends would recount a late-night viewing of Vu’s swagger and pitch, his enthusiastic broken English telling you to get off your ass and make that money. If you were lucky someone taped it and you were able to watch it, mouth agape, with friends. If you flipped around at 2am, you could probably catch him yelling at you for being afraid of success.

In reality, Vu didn’t follow his own system, but bought much of his real estate using the cash raised from his seminars. The yacht in his infomercial was a rental. And an investigation by the Florida attorney general into charges of fraud and deceptive practices cooled Vu’s jets pretty good. Tom gave tearful interviews listing all his good works, and the millions he donated to the homeless and Florida police. Former students accused him of cult-like practices including mind-control and sleep deprivation. No criminal charges were filed; some believe the accusations against Vu were merely complaints by disgruntled, naive students of his system who blindly followed his instructions and lost their shirts. Nevertheless, Vu yanked his infomercials off the air during the investigation. He later retired to Las Vegas, where today he continues to make money as a professional poker player.

While The Wolf Of Wall Street and Pain & Gain both come from outrageous individual source material, they both owe a considerable aesthetic debt to the heightened TV reality of Tom Vu. Danny Lugo didn't attend a Jordan Belfort seminar; he saw Tom Vu's infomercial and imagined himself in Jordan Belfort's life. No news on an Oscar season biopic for Vu, but Mike Myers did a pretty good impression of him on Saturday Night Live.