Yes, he's the most hated man in America – possibly the world – but there's more to Martin Shkreli than meets the eye

Shkreli’s fatal error wasn’t his exploitation of people suffering from HIV. It was doing a number on Wall Street. Sick people you can cheat. But woe betide you if you cheat rich people

James Moore
Thursday 14 September 2017 13:50 BST
Shkreli has been jailed for offering $5,000 for a lock of Hillary Clinton’s hair
Shkreli has been jailed for offering $5,000 for a lock of Hillary Clinton’s hair (EPA)

At some point, you’re going to see a movie about Martin Shkreli, the so-called “pharma bro” who at one point was described as “the most hated man in America”.

A biopic-cum-tragicomedy, it will feature a charismatic young actor out to prove they can do more than playing the action hero or the rom-com lead. In the right hands, it could be a massive hit.

My saying that might infuriate a lot of people. Shkreli became infamous for gouging HIV patients and pregnant women after his pharmaceutical company acquired a life-saving treatment and promptly hiked the price by 5,000 per cent.

His most recent outrage, in a long and growing list, was an offer to pay $5,000 (£3,750) for one of Hillary Clinton’s hairs, with the follicle attached. That one landed him in jail. He’s currently awaiting sentencing for cheating investors in two of his former hedge funds, and a judge revoked his bail having decided it was a solicitation for assault – understandably, given near maniacal hatred for the former presidential candidate inspires in a subculture that sees her as the antichrist.

It might be some time before Shkreli is again able to enjoy life outside of a cell. He’s facing up to 20 years behind bars for the offences he has been convicted of. There’s not much in it for a judge in being lenient with him.

Ex-Pharma CEO Martin Shkreli jailed for soliciting Hillary Clinton's hair

However, there is a well-established market for films and books about charismatic fraudsters and amoral Wall Street financiers. See: The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s blackly comic and morally questionable biopic focusing on Jordan Belfort, the pantomime villain of an earlier epoch, now making another fortune for himself as a motivational speaker. America is, after all, a nation of second chances. If you read what some of his victims have written, you’ll realise he probably doesn’t deserve one.

No more than does Shkreli, many would argue. This is a man who prompted one anonymous Reddit user to write “Just f**king die will you”, encapsulating the feelings of a nation – and perhaps much of the world – in the process.

And yet Shkreli’s story isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as it might appear, as Bethany McLean argued in a Vanity piece last year. There is more to this man than you might imagine from a cursory glance at his public profile.

Not that I want to make any excuses for him. I just wonder if we aren’t missing the point when it comes to his story with our focus on him as the black-hearted villain.

Shkreli’s price gouging was, as he has repeatedly pointed out, legal. In doing it, he shone an unflattering spotlight on the sleazy practices endemic to the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. He is by no means the first to take advantage of holding the rights to a monopoly treatment while regulators drag their feet over competitors. It’s a recognised business strategy that has made many less celebrated people an awful lot of money.

His sin – his fatal error – wasn’t his exploitation of people suffering from HIV. It was doing a number on Wall Street. Sick people you can cheat. But woe betide you if you cheat rich people.

Consider, too, his Clinton tweet. Calling it a tasteless joke, one of his lawyers pointed out that it was comparable to some of President Donald Trump’s comments. And isn’t it?

I’m not arguing for Shkreli here. I don’t believe it was a tasteless joke. If you look at his YouTube channel, you’ll see that he appears to fully buy into some of the wilder Clinton conspiracy theories.

But it’s also true that you’ll find plenty more like it on Twitter, and other social media forums. And If Shkreli was inciting violence, then hasn’t Trump done the same? Repeatedly?

Behind bars, Shkreli’s publicity star will inevitably fade. It won’t be all that long before some of the people who hate him will respond with a “Who?” when you mention his name.

But he’s too compelling, and in many ways too disturbing, a character to entirely fade away. There will be a book, and then there will be a movie, and in the hands of the right director – and with the right actor – it might contend for awards as Scorsese’s film about Belfort did.

Trouble is, the focus will be on Shkreli the person, not on what he did. The things we ought to be thinking about in the wake of his rise, and his no less spectacular fall, and the lessons we should learn from it will barely be touched upon, and then only as plot devices.

Shkreli’s a very modern fable, and it is sadly one that has been told before and will be told again.

He might even get the last laugh. If I’m right about that movie, a publicity hound like Martin Shkreli will be in heaven, most likely left seeking out Belfort’s agent ahead of the inevitable speaking tour when he does get out.

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