SANTA MONICA, CALIF. -- Southern California has produced another glamorous, grisly crime story for its glitter industry to recreate on videotape: the saga of the "Billionaire Boys Club."

A vision of Joe Hunt, BBC Consolidated -- out of which the nickname grew -- began six years ago as an investment and social fraternity for wealthy young men from the west side of Los Angeles. It ended last year with the arrest of Hunt, 27, and other club members on murder charges.

Hunt and his bodyguard, Jim Pittman, 33, are on trial here in the death of Beverly Hills freelance photographer and admitted con-man Ron Levin, whose body has never been found. In opening arguments this week, Hunt was portrayed by the prosecution as avaricious, manipulative and amoral but by the defense as a "loser" whose hunger for wealth and regard extended to fast money but not to murder.

Joe Hunt's career at the Harvard School here did not foreshadow such notoriety. His name then was Joseph Henry Gamsky, and a schoolmate recalls that "he was real quiet, not popular by any means." Hunt's father ran a series of small, failed businesses in the San Fernando Valley, and Gamsky was a scholarship student. Several years later, he would try to match his classmates' flashier life style.

Hunt abandoned his business studies at the University of Southern California after three semesters to trade commodities in Chicago, until the Mercantile Exchange suspended him for unsound trading practices.

He returned to Los Angeles in 1981 as Joe Hunt, telling friends that he had graduated from USC in less than two years and become a successful trader with an unbeatable system. Former classmates found the tall, pale, dark-haired Hunt charismatic and persuasive as he recruited them for a new kind of venture in which they would work together at several business ventures, socialize together, live together. One by one, they joined: Dean Karny, son of a Beverly Hills developer; Tom and Dave May, twin members of the May Co. department store family, and more than 25 others.

Hunt named his creation after a Chicago bar he had frequented, the Bombay Bicycle Club, but for its members, BBC Consolidated came to stand for Billionaire Boys Club.

"He was an important guiding factor of my life," club member Evan Dicker said in testimony at Pittman's first trial, which ended in a hung jury. "He filled some place like an older brother who you looked up to, and you took a great deal of direction from and even feared displeasing."

Karny's parents gave Hunt $150,000 in 1981 to invest in the commodities market. He lost all of it, Karny testified, but the Karnys maintained a "very supportive relationship" with Hunt and invested $25,000 in another BBC company. Hunt had told them that the company, Microgenesis, was to build and market milling machines designed by an Arizona inventor, but only one machine was built, and investors never saw their money again.

Meanwhile, BBC Consolidated maintained a convincing facade. Its members, some of whom shared luxury condominiums with Hunt on Wilshire Boulevard, dressed well and rented posh offices in West Hollywood. But its subsidiaries -- Microgenesis, Westcars, Financial Futures and International Marketing, and Fire Safety Association of America -- lost $900,000 by early 1984.

Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Fred Wapner argues that Hunt met Ron Levin in 1983 and, thinking there was deep money behind his extravagant habits, saw him as the solution to the club's financial woes.

In June 1983, according to testimony, Levin told Hunt that he would give Hunt $5 million to invest in the commodities market. Hunt parlayed the money on paper into $13 million, only to discover in the fall that there had been no $5 million: Levin had convinced a brokerage firm that he was making a documentary about commodities trading and had helped him set up bogus accounts in Hunt's name.

It was a dose of Hunt's own medicine. "The BBC really didn't recognize a morality, any set system of morality," Evan Dicker testified. "You did what you had to do under the circumstances to achieve your goals, and the ends justified the means."

Karny, the prosecution's key witness, testified at the first trial that on June 24, 1984, Hunt told the club's inner council how he and Pittman had killed Levin three weeks before after forcing him to write a check for $1.5 million on a Swiss bank account.

"He discussed how the BBC was to take great steps to achieve greatness and that . . . it would require {us} to possibly transgress the law, and for those people who were up to it, who had the strength and sort of backbone to . . . achieve greatness in such a way that no one could take it away from you, then the BBC could serve as an avenue for that."

A list found in Levin's apartment is entitled "At Levin's TO DO," and includes these reminders: "Tape mouth, hand cuff, put gloves on, explain situation, scan for tape recorder, kill dog."

Although Karny claims that Hunt described dumping Levin's body in a deserted canyon, no body has been found. Arthur Barens, Hunt's attorney, argues that, without a body or other forensic evidence, Hunt's list and speeches mean nothing.

Barens points out that Levin was facing grand theft charges for receiving $1 million in stolen computer goods when he disappeared and had a good reason to skip town.

The defense got an unexpected break when, in October, a Tucson couple told authorities they had seen a man matching Levin's description at a gas station. The couple, who had seen Levin's picture in a magazine, have passed polygraph tests and picked Levin's photo from police mug shots.

Karny led police to the remains of Hadayat Eslaminia, a wealthy Iranian whose son, Reza, joined the BBC in 1984 and told members that he hated his father.

Karny testified in preliminary hearings that Hunt and four others planned to kidnap Reza's father, force him to sign over his assets to Reza, then kill him. He said the plot miscarried when Eslaminia died in the trunk of their car before they could tap his accounts.

Hunt is free on bail in both cases. His girlfriend's father, Hollywood agent Bobby Roberts, put up the $2 million bond, took him home and hired Barens as Hunt's attorney.

Roberts once had prohibited his daughter from associating with Hunt, and he has not commented on his change of heart. Agents and film companies are pursuing principals in the case, trying to secure story rights.

Superior Court Judge Laurence J. Rittenband is worried about such publicity. "I don't want this case tried on the courthouse steps," he said. Inside the courthouse, the crowd has included screenwriters, producers and casting agents, proving that crime can pay -- in Hollywood.