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A lesser character in the Oscar-nominated Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street has triggered a $25 million lawsuit.
The lawsuit against Paramount Pictures, Red Granite Pictures and other producers centers on the portrayal of Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff, played by actor P.J. Byrne — one of the executives who worked at the featured corrupt brokerage house of Stratton Oakmont.
Don’t recognize him? He’s the one the lawsuit says wore a toupee throughout the movie. Still don’t? He’s the one who assumed a significant leadership role at Stratton Oakmont upon Jordan Belfort‘s resignation. Still need another clue? He’s the one who caused the character of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) to remark, “F—ing Rugrat that wig-wearing faggot I can’t believe that f—ing guy. I want to kill him,” and Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) to then respond, “Swear to God, I want to choke him to death. Irresponsible little prick.”
Now, in a New York federal court, Andrew Greene has come forward to claim a likeness to his own self.
Greene says he was with Stratton Oakmont between 1993 and 1996, and during the time period featured in the movie, was the head of the firm’s corporate finance department and a member of the board of directors. Greene says his legal full name was used in Belfort’s memoir, which provided the basis for the acclaimed film.
THR COVER: Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio Finally Open Up About ‘Wolf of Wall Street’
His nickname allegedly changed from “Wigwam” to “Rugrat” in the film, but Greene believes his mark is unmistakable. He is perturbed by what he sees on the screen.
“The motion picture contains various scenes wherein Mr. Greene’s character is portrayed as a criminal, drug user, degenerate, depraved, and/or devoid of any morality or ethics,” says the lawsuit. “In one scene, Mr. Greene’s character is depicted shaving a woman’s head after Jordan Belfort’s character states the woman was offered ten-thousand dollars.”
The film treads upon real-life criminality that eventually led to Belfort spending 22 months in prison. The most legally sensitive area, it appears, is the depiction of Belfort’s associates.
The lawsuit (read here in full) continues:
“In a voice-over, Jordan Belfort’s character states Plaintiffs character was arrested in Miami along with a Swiss banker who plaintiff supposedly knew from law school, which precipitated Jordan Belfort’s arrest. Another voice-over claims Mr. Greene’s character set up a meeting with that Swiss banker that could launder money. Mr. Greene’s character is later seen accompanying Jordan Belfort to a meeting in Switzerland for the purposes of laundering money. Mr. Greene’s character is shown doing cocaine on company premises during business hours in another scene. The motion picture included other scenes depicting Mr. Greene’s character in a reckless and depraved manner, including more than one scene wherein his character is depicted having sexual relations with a prostitute.”
Greene says that he didn’t consent to his image, likeness and characterization in Wolf of Wall Street. He’s asserting a claim based upon a New York civil rights law that’s analogous to a publicity rights statute. He’s also claiming the movie contains libelous statements that “permanently damaged” him by portraying him as a “criminal and drug user with misogynistic tendencies.”
The lawsuit figures to spark the latest battle testing the boundary between publicity rights and the First Amendment. Prior cases include an advertisement about a futuristic Wheel of Fortune that evoked Vanna White, the hip-hop group Outkast’s use of civil rights icon Rosa Parks in a song and Gwen Stefani‘s lawsuit over a video game that featured her as an avatar singing about sleeping with prostitutes. The Supreme Court has tackled the issue once — a 1978 decision concerning a man whose human cannonball act was featured on television.
The Wolf of Wall Street dramatized some real-life events, but even fictional works have sparked libel claims. These have met with mixed success. See, for example, the trial over a sexually promiscuous alcoholic character in the best-selling novel The Red Hat Club, or the appellate ruling over a hard-drinking, bondage-loving real estate agent on CBS crime drama CSI.
Perhaps the legal dispute most closely resembling Greene’s is the one brought by a former Iraqi soldier who claimed to be the inspiration behind the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker. Similarly, that lawsuit also came just days before the Academy Awards and alleged publicity rights violations and defamation. The lawsuit was dismissed by a judge on First Amendment grounds and is now pending before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Paramount referred questions to Red Granite, which didn’t immediately comment on the lawsuit.
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