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Saturday, June 25, 2022

An American Nightmare

The glorification of greed in The Wolf of Wall Street is troubling for Becky Cook.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) opens with a confession: “The year I turned 26, I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week”. It’s our first introduction to Jordan Belfort, a high-powered, high-energy stockbroker based on a real-life banker convicted of financial fraud in 1999. The brashness of that opening statement is perhaps only rivalled by Henry Hill’s confession in Goodfellas (1990): “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

Just like Henry Hill, Leonardo DiCaprio’s initially innocent Jordan Belfort throws himself to the wolves, descending into unapologetic hedonism and debauchery. His first day on Wall Street sees him swallowed up and spat out on Black Monday of 1987, the day global stock markets plunged. However, he goes on to flog worthless ‘penny stocks’ at a sleepy Long Island dealership, allowing him to accumulate a small fortune in a short space of time. Eventually, he forms his own brokerage firm with his neighbour, Donny Azoff, played by Jonah Hill.

Like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Belfort recognizes the importance of image. He chooses to call the firm that he founds ‘Stratton Oakmont’ in an attempt to suggest solidity, responsibility and staunch values. But this respectability is only skin-deep: the atmosphere at Stratton Oakmount is similar to that of a degenerate frat-house, complete with hookers, hazing and a Friday dwarf-throwing competition.

Belfort encourages every excess, spending money as quickly as he earns it and engaging in outrageous antics. He becomes addicted to an exotic mixture of “cocaine, Quaaludes, Xanax, Paxil, uppers, downers, all-rounders”, acquires a wrinkled Ferrari and buys a yacht that capsizes somewhere in the Mediterranean during a storm of epic proportions.

Belfort’s business involves peddling questionable stocks to gullible investors in order to line his own pockets. Like Gordan Gekko in Wall Street (1987), he confidently believes that greed is good. He’s supported by a plethora of unctuous salesmen who resemble David Mamet’s desperate and unscrupulous realtors in Glengarry Glen Ross (1984). These disciples are taught to do whatever it takes to close the deal – they are encouraged to threaten, coerce or outright deceive investors to make a sale. Belfort and his staff engage in all manner of illegal and unscrupulous activity, selling clients worthless stocks, charging extortionate commissions and manipulating stock-market prices. In real life, thousands of small investors were conned out of their life savings by Stratton Oakmont. And yet the only victims in The Wolf of Wall Street are Belfort and his sidekick Danny Azoff, who are both sent to prison.

The ‘Wolf of Wall Street’, as Forbes first dubbed him in 1991, seems remarkably harmless in the film. All that we see on screen is a drug-addled buffoon making money and then blowing it on drugs, parties, and sex. The other side of the story – the very real suffering that his actions caused – is almost entirely obscured by Belfort’s bacchanalian antics. The victims are whitewashed out of the picture.

Yet Scorsese shouldn’t be accused of glorifying Belfort’s lifestyle. He doesn’t show the human impact of Belfort’s financial scams but that isn’t what he wants to do. Instead, his aim is to demonstrate how easy it is to tacitly condone morally unscrupulous activity. In the final scene, the camera pans up over the audience listening to a motivational speech delivered by Jordan Belfort, hovering over a sea of desperate and awe-filled faces. This shot holds up a mirror to the film’s audience. We are essentially watching a slightly different version of the speech that Belfort is giving – one that contains more of the sordid details but is just as saccharine.

It brings to mind Oliver Stone’s observation, made while promoting Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), that “Villains sometimes tend to rise above their role in life. They become heroes or anti-heroes. We lost our bearings in America, we’re living way beyond our means and people began to worship the idea of excess.” Belfort is one such villain.

We all know that Belfort’s behavior is bad and yet, as the final scene shows, many of us don’t care. We’re still willing to watch him ruin lives on screen or buy his autobiography, which was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. In that final scene, it becomes clear that we too have been sucked in by Belfort’s manipulative charm. The film demonstrates to us just why Belfort was so successful – he had glamour, charm, and confidence. The film, really, is a confidence trick of sorts. It reels us in slowly and makes us admire a deeply unpleasant man. The effect is unsettling and a true demonstration of Scorsese’s artistry.

Films can do two things. They can teach audiences how to live or they can depict human nature frankly and vividly. The Wolf of Wall Street chooses the second of these paths. It’s a romanticized portrait of an unpleasant person that perfectly illustrates the essential amorality of many humans. The film shows us how easy it is to succumb to greed – and how simple it is to con people out of their money. The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours of people saying ‘fuck’, exchanging bodily fluids, and screwing over innocent people. And we can’t look away.

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