Assessing the Impact of
The Wolf of Wall Street
Critical and popular reaction to The Wolf of Wall Street has been wide-ranging and passionate, by turns rhapsodic and malicious. The film has made — and topped — numerous “Best of 2013” lists and enjoys a 76% positive rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, the film has also garnered an ardent posse of detractors who declaim the film’s amorality and decadence. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody named it the best film of 2013, wrote two articles about it (“The Wild, Brilliant Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Lasting Power of Wolf of Wall Street”), praising the film as Scorsese’s best and nothing less than one of cinema’s great masterworks, lavishing on it a level of adulation nearly as extravagant as the film itself (he manages to describe it as “Olympian” in both articles). Writing for the same publication, David Denby, in the best review I’ve read of the film, calls it “monotonous in the way that all burlesque becomes monotonous after a while.” Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal “couldn't wait for the hollow spectacle to end.” Internet film criticism magnate Matt Zoller Seitz “could imagine watching these cackling swine for five hours, or ten, while still finding them fascinating.”
This fervor and disparity makes sense; if ever there were a film to respond strongly to, it’s this one. WoWS is a 180-minute epic of drugs, sex, and money, a bacchanal to shame Dionysus, a paean to excess and extravagance that seeks at every turn to outdo itself. A successor to Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), the film and its characters have inspired comparison to Gordon Gekko, Machiavelli, Caligula, The Great Gatsby, Jerry Lewis, and Richard III. For those who missed it, WoWS recounts the true-ish exploits of Jordan Belfort, a stock broker from Queens who founded the firm Stratton Oakmont and amassed a fortune in the 90s through fraud, money laundering, stock manipulations, and other sundried cons, crimes for which he served jail time in the early 2000s. The film is based on Belfort’s 2003 memoir of the same name and takes on a boastful tone as Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, narrates his cocaine-fueled, sex-saturated tale of outrageous wealth, replete with strippers, yachts, Quaalude popping, and an endless parade of bare boobs.
Though it made me laugh, wince, and feel repulsed, my primary reaction to The Wolf of Wall Street was nothing so extreme. It was boredom. I enjoyed the first hour of the film — it’s energetic and funny in the way Goodfellas is, and the direction and performances are polished and dynamic. But, as Denby observes, the movie is utterly monotonous. Essentially, The Wolf of Wall Street is a three-hour long trailer for itself; it sustains the high-pitch energy of a trailer for its entire duration, and has precisely as much insight, narrative development, and depth of character as a two-minute teaser. Only 90 times longer. But I think this is a little reductive in terms of the film’s huge cultural, popular, and social cachet. In order to explore the broader impact of the film, I’d like first to look at the critical discourse that has emerged in response to WoWS.
Obviously, there are two basic camps — critics who like the film and those who don’t. Those in the former category praise the energetic, freewheeling direction, the acting, and, most importantly, claim that the film reveals something about human nature and the times we live in. Those in the latter camp, though also praising the acting and directing, argue that the film glorifies the disgusting and amoral behavior of its characters, and pays no attention to the victims of Stratton Oakmont’s schemes. Further, it has seemingly become a requirement of more recent favorable criticism to attack the film’s detractors. These attacks range from accusations of liberal sanctimony, to simple prudishness, to an inability to understand the film’s satirical points.
My main contention here is with the claim that the film reveals something about human nature and the state of the modern world. This line of argument has two main assertions. The first is that the film, an exploration of greed and consumption, taps into our own desires for obscene wealth and the hedonistic pleasures it brings. Brody writes that Belfort “does what we would but don’t dare, he says what we think and feel but suppress…. Critics railing at the movie aren’t just railing at Belfort, or even at the world; those who are decrying its extremes are maintaining their own innocence, protesting all too much their immunity to its temptations.” The second, more absurd feature of this line of reasoning is that the film reveals and condemns the pitfalls of America’s money culture and capitalist appetites. Seitz argues that “’Wolf’ is not so much about one addict as it is about America's addiction to capitalist excess.”
Since the degree to which you sympathize with or envy the behavior of the characters in the film is entirely up to you, the second point is what interests me here. As it happens, the condemnation of Wall Street’s evils was also a project of the filmmakers. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, DiCaprio, Scorsese, screenwriter Terrence Winter, and co-star Jonah Hill schmooze about what the film has to say about “the world today.” DiCaprio says that the film is about “How history repeats itself. How we’re not learning from our mistakes. It’s holding a mirror up to what’s still going on.” And Winter, regarding Wall Street, says, “It really made me rethink the system and the damage that’s been done by a lot of these guys.”
All this brings up a few issues. First, the reviewers and the filmmakers both betray a sense of context that the film does not display. Seitz writes that Jordan Belfort and men like him represent America, “and on some level we must be OK with them representing America, otherwise we would have seen reforms in the late '80s or '90s or '00s that made it harder for men like Belfort to amass a fortune.” Thoughts like this are completely absent from the film. And if there’s ever a danger that you may have a thought like this, that you may, for a second, think about how the system these guys are operating in is just part of a larger financial and governmental system that screws over Americans every day, the film punishes you with another montage of drugs and sex and money, ideally in concert — Belfort snorting coke out of a hooker’s ass with a rolled up $100 bill, for example.
The only thing resembling insight into the processes and mindset of these people comes near the beginning of the film in a scene between Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) and Belfort. Belfort is working his first job on Wall Street, still basically innocent and uncriminal, and Hanna is a big shot who’s taken Belfort under his wing. Hanna is, incidentally, the most interesting character in the film, and this scene is by far WoWS’s best. They’re having lunch, and Hanna prescribes the path to Wall Street success. Some of his advice is financial (if a client earns money on a stock, never let him sell; argue him into reinvesting, and take the commission) and some of it personal (masturbate at least twice a day, and do lots of coke). Though all this advice seems to provide Jordan with a sort of blueprint for his later success and debauchery, it betrays a level of insight and interest that is lacking from the rest of the film. Not that advising someone to masturbate and do drugs is particularly perspicacious — it’s Hanna’s understanding of the nature of money as it functions in the stock market that’s significant. Namely, that it’s essentially meaningless; he uses the word “fugazi,” which means fake or phony. The money that you put into the stock market, he explains, isn’t really money once it enters the system. It’s “fairy dust” being passed around for brokers to profit off of, and the more it’s passed around, the more they profit. In a way, this basic concept, though not the basis for Belfort’s later schemes, informs the way he thinks about stocks, and lays the groundwork for his criminal accumulation of wealth.
Unfortunately, the movie is bereft of any other details of their schemes. Whenever Jordan begins to describe a financial or economic concept — an IPO (Initial Public Offering), for example — he stops himself, and says something like, “You know what? Who cares? The point is we made a shit load of money.” According to the filmmakers, this was intentional. Winter compares it to the descriptions of science-y things in sci-fi movies. Nobody really listens to all that junk, he argues. All you need to know is that if the rocket goes up and explodes, it’s bad. Similarly, they left out any “technical” details from their film because they knew that people wouldn’t listen to it. It just goes in one ear and out the other. In other words, they have no respect for their audience. They assume that we’re so stupid that we can’t even sit through an explanation of an IPO, that we can’t grasp the basics of stock fraud, that we’re too eager to see another procession of strippers and Quaalude use (how interesting!) to abide even one diversion into something so tedious as the thing that the movie is about.
Let’s return to the idea that the film shows us behavior and impulses that we all have but don’t indulge. If the point is to try to make disgusting behavior look attractive, to try to expose our own desires to participate in that disgusting behavior, I don’t believe that you can at the same time condemn that behavior. And though whether or not it’s meant as a condemnation is up for debate, the point is that the filmmaker’s have described it as a “cautionary tale,” and even positive reviews of the film give some space to an explanation of how the film, at the very least, reveals an aspect of society that is undesirable. Not to mention that common sense and basic morality tells us that what we’re seeing is at least moderately contemptible. So whether or not “condemn” is the right word, suffice it to say that we’re supposed to come away with the understanding that Jordan Belfort is more or less a bad person whose behavior should not be emulated.
All this constitutes an enormous discontinuity. On the one hand, the filmmakers don’t expect us to have the concentration, intelligence, or interest to understand the most basic elements of Jordan’s schemes; on the other hand, they expect us to watch a three-hour celebration of tits, drugs, and money, all intended to seduce us into an identification with similar impulses within ourselves — and then to distill from all that the conclusion that what these guys did was really bad and that it’s terrible that society has gone so far as to allow guys like this to do things like that. How bad indeed.
Then again, maybe my criticisms are misguided here. After all, I got the point, didn’t I? I came away thinking that Jordan Belfort was a terrible guy, and that his behavior is disgusting. So what am I complaining for? After all, as Seitz writes, “The people complaining that the ‘message’ of films like Wolf of Wall Street might confuse people are never themselves confused.” Will I, as Brody writes, “look as ridiculous as those who, in the early nineteen-thirties, decried Howard Hawks’s Scarface, requiring that it be released with a didactic prologue, a didactic insert, a didactic ending, and a subtitle (“The Shame of a Nation”)”? Seitz compares WoWS to numerous other films — Psycho, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Wall Street, A Clockwork Orange — that are similarly told from the perspective of an evil or amoral person, and asks, “Should we bring back the Hays Office, to make sure that nobody ever sees the world through the eyes of less-than-good people?”
These are valid points. Certainly no one who cares about movies wants to bring back censorship or thinks that every movie must have a positive, moralizing, didactic “message.” However, arguments like these are utterly hollow, and divert attention away from a more important issue that the critics are missing.
My question is this: what’s the point? I mean, is this really the story about Wall Street that needs to be told? Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese have taken a memoir written by a guy who fleeced people of many millions of dollars and taken him at his word that everything he writes and tells them is true, even though in the same breath they rave about what a good salesman he is, all the while knowing that his main sales strategy is lying. So of course all his wild claims are true. It’s a book written by a guy whose money was taken away by the government (though he has not paid all of his fines), who made $1 million selling the rights of his book to the movies. It’s a movie that depicts Belfort’s escapades in full detail, including countless naked boobs and drug use, but spends no time giving context or perspective to those details. It’s a movie that spends five minutes discussing the logistics of using little people as human darts, and 12 seconds describing what an IPO is, before deciding we’re too stupid to follow along. How does this movie reveal anything about the human condition? What does it teach us about the world, other than boobs and drugs sell movie tickets? How can a movie that was made for $100 million (that’s $100,000,000, roughly the amount Mr. Belfort was fined for his crimes) claim to comment on America’s addiction to capitalist excess? Do critics really think that the movies can do no better than this? That this is the film that we need in response to the financial crisis and Wall Street’s crimes? It seems to me that if your project is to expose the criminal excesses of Wall Street, this is the last movie you would make.
Okay, so I’m a little angry. But I cannot for the life of me come up with a reason for this movie to exist. Has it occurred to no critic that the depiction of such salacious exploits in such decadent detail to such excess, rather than a noble quest to reveal man’s nature and Wall Street’s evils, is nothing more than an attempt to sell tickets? This film is a symptom of the thing it condemns. Perhaps I’ve mentioned this, but its budget was $100 million. Its director, Martin Scorsese, reportedly has a net worth of $70 million. Its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, reportedly has a net worth of $200 million, and made $77 million in 2010, which, for those keeping score, is $25 million more than $1 million per week. He also owns an island in Belize. Are these the people in the best position to tell a cautionary tale about the destructive power of wealth?
Getting broader, what does Jordan Belfort’s story, and the development of his story into the biggest movie event of the year, have to say about American society as a whole? Well, astute readers may have noticed that every name that appears in this article belongs to a white man. In the film, women mainly serve as objects to fulfill a man’s desire, and minorities are almost entirely absent. Richard Brody writes, “Too much has been made of the movie’s lack of attention to Belfort’s victims. The complaint is shortsighted: the victims are everywhere. Early on, some are heard on the phone, looking to make money through investments that they don’t earn…To see Belfort’s victims, look in the mirror—and look there to see Belfort’s collaborators, too.” But those are not the victims of Belfort’s crimes. The victims of Belfort’s crimes, and all crimes like it, are those who are shut out of the whole equation. Over the past thirty-odd years, the economic policy of our country has adhered to a strict policy of deregulation of financial markets, the freeing up of financial capital, and tax breaks for business and the wealthy, while cutting funding for education, welfare, and social programs. The reason Belfort was able to do what he did is the same reason the healthcare and public school systems are in disrepair, and the omission of this fact says as much about how the filmmakers view the world as anything they say about what they think their movie means.
The story and the movie reveal, above all else, who and what is valued by our society. Jordan Belfort served 22 months in prison for his crimes. The average prison sentence for a federal marijuana crime is 36 months. To tell you the truth, I’m not particularly interested in the people who were swindled by Jordan Belfort. What interests me is how we’ve built a system that rewards wealth and creates an elite ruling class, a system that concurrently ignores the needs of America’s middle and under classes. Though disappointing, it’s no surprise that film critics have ignored the issues of racial and class privilege in The Wolf of Wall Street. Misters Belfort, Scorsese, DiCaprio, and Brody will likely never be poor enough to need welfare or free health care, but they’re rich enough to earn money in the stock market, so it’s clear where their concerns lie.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a film made by millionaires, about millionaires, funded by millionaires. A debate has been raging about whether or not this film is a satire, about whether or not the behavior depicted is glorified or not. To my mind, this is no debate at all. The film revels in every detail of the saucier exploits of a millionaire and earned millions of dollars for those who made it. I think it’s pretty clear what it’s glorifying.
The success of The Wolf of Wall Street — the millions, the prestigious award nominations — ensures that its makers will go on earning more millions and winning more awards in the future. Jordan Belfort will continue to receive positive media attention (he’s a reformed man, you know), and scheme the public out of more money. There is an hour-long episode of Charlie Rose in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese talk to the host about WoWS, congratulating themselves on what a great and topical movie they’ve made. Is this so different from the Wall Street brokers who high-fived and cheered through their viewing of The Wolf of Wall Street? No matter the opinions involved, the mainstream critical discourse surrounding American cinema is largely self-reflexive, circular, and unproductive. I’m interested in a different kind of cinema. A cinema that gives a voice to those who are shut out of the systems that created Jordan Belfort and The Wolf of Wall Street, a cinema that critiques these systems, that creates new ideas, that shows us things we haven’t seen. That’s the kind of cinema we need right now.
//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.