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The Wolf of Wall Street

December 25, 2013
The Wolf of Wall Street

I don’t think anyone really thinks that Wall Street brokers are not, as a class, tremendously arrogant, elitist, entitled, and at times offensive human beings. In a sense, you kind of have to be to get the job done, sort of like the way soldiers have to go through basic training and come out the other side a little different from the rest of us. Even so, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street can be a bracing eye-opener. The brokers of Stratton Oakmont seem by all accounts to be thoroughly despicable, and in the hands of a lesser director than Scorsese this could have been a truly repulsive exercise. Maybe it should have, but in his hands we get a rollicking coke- and Quaalude-fueled bender through the dark side of the financial industry.

Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an addict to many drugs, but chief among them is money. He’s also a totally real guy, who wrote the memoir on which the film is based. He started at a big Wall Street firm under the less-than-scrupulous Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) and passed his Series 7 exams right before Black Monday, which left him out in the cold.

Belfort got back on his feet at a questionable investment company working out of a storefront on Long Island, selling penny stocks to working-class schmucks who buy into their get-rich-quick marketing — “garbage stocks to garbagemen” — and the teeth he cut in the real markets make short work of these wide-eyed rubes. With fifty-percent commissions, he’s quickly pulling in huge money; he meets up with furniture salesman Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and they set up their own boiler room brokerage — yes, pretty much exactly like the one in Boiler Room — staffed with poorly-educated lowlifes who could follow the script Belfort set out.

In short order Stratton Oakmont balloons to an enormous operation, chasing after wealthy private investors to fund their pump-and-dump schemes. It leaves behind the dirty garage and adopts the veneer of respectability, where “respectability” includes $26,000 dinners, three grades of prostitutes on retainer, a river of pharmaceuticals, naked marching bands parading through the office, and dwarf-tossing — which younger audiences might not realize was totally a thing for a while. They hire Belfort’s father (Rob Reiner) as some kind of security, an attorney (Jon Favreu) to run interference with the authorities, make contact with a Swiss banker (Jean Dujardin) to hide their money, and keep one of their old Quaalude hookups (Jon Bernthal) to do some of their dirtier work. Is it any wonder that they caught the attention not only of the SEC, but of FBI agent Greg Coleman (Kyle Chandler)?

The one thing that’s abundantly clear, in case you didn’t already know, is that Martin Scorsese knows how to shoot the hell out of a movie. The drug-addled debauchery is clearly despicable and downright misogynistic if not explicitly racist, but damn if it doesn’t look glamorous as hell. Scorsese knows exactly what to do with a camera, deploying hand-held work, static frames, slow-motion, and sweeping shots each to their best effect. Even an all-hands sales meeting comes off with the energy and excitement that was so lacking from the giant Long Island house parties of The Great Gatsby. And the giant Long Island house parties that Belfort throws rival Caligula.

It’s not only remarkable here that Scorsese manages to make all this look like so much fun, but that he trusts his mainstream audience enough to do so. Remember it was only just this year that the popular press skewered Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers for being both “too sexualized” and “not titillating enough”. Scorsese can make a general audience get it in a way that Korine just couldn’t pull off, but I’m certain that even he’s going to fall short here.

We are not going to punish these guys the way the guys from Casino, Goodfellas, and Taxi Driver were punished for their transgressions. Indeed, we know this going in: the movie rights the real Belfort will take in for this film alone will far outstrip the median household income for American families. And that lack of punishment is exactly what Scorsese rubs our noses in, just like Korine did. We created this culture that applauds and glamorizes these guys, and we never really punish rich white guys no matter how they got rich. Korine edits together gunshot wounds and partying college kids to force us to consider the deep connections between them; Scorsese draws the connection between our admiration and revulsion of Belfort’s too-much-fun inside our own minds. He admonishes us for our disinterest in the system behind the glamour every time Belfort starts in on an explanation of how his latest scam works, only to break off and admit that he knows we really don’t care about any of that, so let’s have another round of hookers, blow, and elaborate crane shots.

And like I said, more people will probably get it here than really understood Spring Breakers at first glance, but I’m certain that there’s going to be a big, bro-ish contingent that looks at Jordan Belfort and sees in him a role model, just like we’ve had a generation of Wall Street pricks who grew up thinking Gordon Gekko was the hero of Wall Street. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, though I wouldn’t put it past Belfort and his pals to have tried.

The problem with the film, if there is one, is that The Wolf of Wall Street points its finger squarely at boiler rooms like Stratton Oakmont. Maybe some of their excesses would not take place at big firms and funds, but do you really believe that addiction to money and other drugs is not endemic to all of Wall Street? The idea that this sort of behavior is connected to the places Belfort looked to hire brokers really smacks of a distaste for the “wrong kind of white people”.

Their criminality, drugs and debauchery aside, is of a particularly venal and actually pretty well-policed sort. The real problems on Wall Street only start with frauds like these. The real criminals don’t try to bribe the federal agents to try to investigate them; they build relationships with the regulators and attorneys general so they never even get investigated, and with congresspeople who arrange for bailouts when their houses of cards crumble beneath them.

The real problem at the heart of Stratton Oakmont is taking financial advice from people whose interests are not aligned with your own. If they get a sizable commission no matter how your trades work out, you’re in trouble. If they can steer you towards financial products that generate large fees independent of your returns, you’re in trouble. If they can direct your money towards markets with no regulations in place to protect your end, you’re in trouble.

It may feel really good to skewer these low-class degenerates with low-class accents who fleece greedy investors. But don’t forget in the process that the big money men who buy more influence than Quaaludes can and do fleece all of us. Do you really expect that a movie production is going to come up with a hundred million dollars and still be able to speak truth to that power?

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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