There is a scene in Martin Scorsese’s new film The Wolf of Wall Street where a Forbes magazine article is published about the story’s central protagonist, Wall Street con-artist Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Belfort is enraged by the “hatchet job” that calls him out for his deceptive practice of selling practically worthless penny stocks for huge commissions by misleading faceless victims on the other end of a phone. He thinks the article will ruin him, but his wife calms him down by saying that all publicity is good publicity. She turns out to be right. Following the article’s publication Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont, is swarmed by people looking for jobs, and his business grows exponentially.
That Forbes article was intended to be a damaging exposé, but it backfired, just as Scorsese and DiCaprio’s film itself is backfiring now. If the tandem, now on their 5th collaboration, are to be believed, they set out to make a film that shines a light on Wall Street corruption and greed. But that’s not the film they actually made. Not by a long shot. And The Wolf of Wall Street, like the Forbes article in the film, appears much more likely to inspire, rather than discourage, another generation of materialistic greed and exploitation.
In 1987, Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street put the phrase “greed is good” into the cultural lexicon while attempting to skewer the financial sector. Gordon Gekko was the film’s villain, meant to personify everything wrong with 80s-era excess, but to a generation of people looking to get rich quick, Gekko’s catchphrase became a powerful mantra. Jordan Belfort himself was among that wave of young people who flocked to Wall Street in those days. While Belfort never utters the phrase “greed is good” directly, he fully embodies that mentality, openly instructing his subordinates to take money from their investor’s pockets and put it in their own without any regard for the client’s well being, all while indulging in the most hedonistic lifestyle possible.
Belfort innovated a method of selling cheap stocks to unwitting investors, retaining a 50% commission on the trade, manipulating the stock price, and then leaving the investor holding the bag when the bottom falls out of the stock. The brokers cash in while the investor’s go into debt. Belfort champions a ruthless approach of hard selling and pumps up his team with daily profanity laced inspirational tirades before the market’s opening bell.
Watching The Wolf of Wall Street is comparable to being run over by a freight train, in all the worst ways possible. Everything about the film is long, loud, and obnoxious. There is no subtlety or nuance, every performance is paper thin, and virtually every scene is longer than it needs to be. The Wolf clocks in at just under 3 hours of headache inducing parties, sex, drug use, and yelling. Lots of yelling.
What’s important to understand about this is that simply depicting certain behaviors isn’t necessarily the same thing as condemning them. In order to condemn what’s being depicted an artist needs to provide the proper context, and The Wolf of Wall Street is totally lacking the necessary context to condemn the activities of Jordan Belfort and his band of cronies. According to DiCaprio and Scorsese, who are now on the defensive about the intended message of the film, the audience is supposed to witness the reckless greed, misogyny, and debauchery on screen and come away with the idea that those things are wrong, but they never give any context to guide the audience to that view.
Without proper context, showing drug-fueled orgies with prostitutes set to music is a glorification of that behavior. Without proper context, showing ruthless stock market manipulation and fraud for personal gain at the expense of others, which allows for extravagant lifestyles complete with enormous yachts, beautiful women, all driven by a “fuck everyone” mentality, is glorification, not condemnation.
As a side point it should be mentioned that the film puts a huge number of nude women on display, but the only glimpse of a male sexual organ is a half-second shot of Jonah Hill masturbating in public, and the anatomy shown is almost certainly a prosthetic. It says a lot that the film is willing to objectify women so blatantly on screen while preserving the men’s dignity, even as they engage in very public sex acts. Besides looking totally unrealistic, it demonstrates the ongoing double-standard women face in society.
DiCaprio, who was recently quoted in an interview by Hitfix, said that those who accuse the film of glorifying Belfort’s activities and lifestyle have, “missed the boat entirely.” He goes on to say, “I mean ultimately I think if anyone watches this movie, at the end of Wolf of Wall Street, they’re going to see that we’re not at all condoning this behavior.” But this is not the case, and it’s actually DiCaprio and Scorsese who have missed the boat.
Ironically, in the same Hitfix interview, he explains exactly why Scorsese made a film that lacks the context needed to give the story the meaning he claims was intended. “The unique thing about Marty,” DiCaprio says, “is that he doesn’t judge his characters. And that was something that you don’t quite understand while you’re making the movie, but he allows the freedom of this almost hypnotic, drug-infused, wild ride that these characters go on. And he allows you, as an audience — guilty or not — to enjoy in that ride without judging who these people are.”
What is difficult to understand here is how Scorsese and DiCaprio thought they could make a film that condemns the financial activities and hedonistic lifestyle Jordan Belfort exhibits without personally judging him in any way. By making a film free of moral judgement, told exclusively from Belfort’s point of view, which entirely ignores the suffering of his penny stock scam’s victims as well as the larger context of Wall Street corruption, we’re left with a movie that effectively glamorizes everything it shows. The closest thing to a victim shown in the film is the secretary who is paid $10,000 to shave her hair off for the entertainment of the whole office, and even that is within the office’s walls, oblivious or indifferent to the suffering they’re causing outside.
Granted, a lot of things eventually go wrong in Belfort’s life. He gets divorced twice, he sinks a yacht, almost watches his friend suffocate while high on drugs, loses millions of dollars in a Swiss bank account, and ultimately spends a short time in a country club prison. But no true tragedy befalls him. No real lesson is learned. At the end of the film Belfort isn’t remorseful about the damage he’s done or the lives he’s ruined, and he even starts a lecture series teaching others how to get rich. This positive ending is shown in the film without any irony or judgement, and as the film comes to a close it becomes obvious that The Wolf of Wall Street is a 3 hour love letter to Jordan Belfort. What else could it be without the moral judgement of the film maker and the proper context to show the audience the real damage people like Belfort do to the world?
The saddest part about all this is that as wild and reckless as Stratton Oakmont is shown to be, Scorsese never clearly illustrates that Belfort and his buddies are just small potatoes. Why even bother to tell this particular story without making the point that it’s just a tiny microcosm of a much larger systemic problem? Unless, of course, the real intention is to glamorize and glorify Belfort and people like him.
The fact that he’s not Goldman Sachs and that he has a “fuck you” attitude toward the larger Wall Street firms seems to be something that Scorsese admires, as if Belfort is some sort of noble renegade outsider fighting against the system. It’s easy to get the sense from the film that Scorsese empathizes with the “anti-establishment” mentality and the creative cut-throat business practices Belfort employs. But even if the director doesn’t personally condone Wall Street greed and corruption, there would be no way to know based on his self-admittedly judgement free film that refuses to show the real fallout of Belfort’s actions and the true context of the story.
The audience gets 2 hours and 45 minutes of wild partying, sex, and drug use, 15 minutes of Belfort’s mostly consequence-free “downfall,” and 0 minutes spent on the proper context that would give the story a more meaningful point about the nature of the system, or on the damage Wall Street greed does to other people. All the audience sees is how Belfort is effected, and he comes out pretty well in the end.
Scorsese and DiCaprio created a film which allows everyone to superimpose their own morality to the subject matter and render their own verdict. If you’re someone who thinks Wall Street greed is ugly and wrong, you might imagine you’ve just seen a film that agrees with you, because it depicted all the behavior you already oppose. On the contrary, if you’re someone who thinks it’s okay to make a profit for yourself and live a life of luxury and excess, everyone else be damned, this film is also for you, because it shows just how glamorous that life can be, without judgement.
It’s obvious that Scorsese and DiCaprio wanted to make a big film. It does take some artistic risks, but in most cases they fail, mostly because the film has no positive moral position to reinforce. So the party rages on, and after a while, the bloated, obnoxious film feels like a hammer crushing your skull. It’s not pleasant, and given that The Wolf of Wall Street totally missed an opportunity to say something important about the times we live in, it’s not worth the pain.
Unlike the Forbes “hatchet job” that angered Belfort before it helped him grow his business by leaps and bounds, The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the book written by the wolf himself. Belfort’s account might have been honest about his wild behavior and his willingness to scam people to enrich himself, but it’s definitely not a hatchet job of any sort. This film is designed to ultimately make Belfort look pretty good, and it will likely help to enrich him even more by promoting his lecture series. All publicity is good publicity, after all. DiCaprio even went out of his way to shoot a promo for Belfort’s real life speaking engagements in which he lavishes the man with praise, even though he still owes restitution to many of his victims.
Given what The Wolf of Wall Street is, as well as what it isn’t, and the fact that DiCaprio supports and promotes Jordan Belfort in real life, it’s safe to assume that when Scorsese and DiCaprio try to make the case that their film is meant to condemn the behavior it depicts, rather than glorifying it, that they’re lying. It is uplifting to note that critics as well as the general public are calling them out for their dishonesty and putting them on the defensive. Those people, like the daughter of one of Belfort’s co-conspirators who wrote an open letter opposing the film, are not the ones who missed the boat entirely. Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese did, and it’s a good sign that a lot of people aren’t buying what The Wolf is selling.