Wall Street’s wolves stripped bare in Scorsese's latest

Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, whose greed destroyed the lives of others.

The Wolf of Wall Street
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler
Showing at selected cinemas

“There is no nobility in poverty. I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor and I chose rich every time. At least as a rich man, when I have to face my problems, I show up in the back of a limo wearing a $2000 suit and a $40,000 gold plated watch! ... I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich! Be aggressive, be ferocious, be telephone fucking terrorists!”

So preaches Jordan Belfort to a meeting of his stockbrokers at Stratton Oakmont in Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street.

Based on the 2007 memoir of the same name, the film by the award winning director of films such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, depicts the true story of the rise and fall of convicted swindler Jordan Belfont (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Starting out in 1987 working for the stockbroking firm LF Rothschild, Belfort is advised by Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) that sex and drugs will help him survive.

Hanna tells him that nothing tangible is created by Wall Street, that stocks and shares are sold and people are persuaded to buy stocks in an effort to persuade people that they can get rich quickly. In reality, it is only the brokers who pocket the money.

These are lessons that Belfort takes to heart and applies over the next few years. However, just as he is about to start out at LF Rothschild, the firm collapses due to the stock market crash of October 1987.

Soon afterwards, Belfort goes to work for a Long Island “Bucket shop”, which peddles shares of smaller companies at a higher commission of 50%. This is a practice Belfort derisively called, “selling garbage to garbage men”.

Belfort’s aggressive selling tactics impress his colleagues. Soon after, he befriends Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who helps to recruit his friends and set up Stratton Oakmont, an over-the-counter-brokerage firm that at its height would employ 1000 brokers.

The firm used illegal practices such as pump and dump, which involves the broker giving the client false and misleading information about stock prices that their firm has secretly invested in. They convince the client to buy shares at a higher price.

Afterwards, the broker dumps the shares at an inflated price on the market, making a financial killing and leaving the clients holding worthless stocks.

By the early '90s, these tactics enabled Belmont and his cronies to grow rich beyond imagination. We see lavish office parties with an endless supply of drugs, alcohol, sex, dwarf tossing competitions and naked marching bands.

Living the high life literally, Belfort becomes addicted to drugs such as cocaine and Quaaludes, frequents high class prostitutes and purchases a 150 foot yacht. After his first marriage ends, he becomes involved with Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie) who he marries.

Belfort is an amoral, drug-addled, misogynistic, anti-social, thieving, wife-beater. At the same time, his charm enables him to sell his belief in a capitalism that in which anyone can get rich if they try hard enough.

Scorsese allows him to provide his own narrative to the film, allowing the viewer to see the character and his world on his own terms, leaving them to make their own judgement.

This means that its shows all sordid excess of drug taking, conspicuous consumption, sordid financial dealings and “victory at all costs” mentality prevalent in Wall Street and capitalism in general.

But for the most part, the crimes of Belfort and his cronies are made to appear victimless. None of the people who had their lives ruined by such shenanigans are shown in the film.

The viewer is also left unsure as to whether we should condemn or celebrate the behaviour of Belfort and his cronies. I believe that such behaviour should be condemned.

In an open letter last year to the makers of the film, Christina McDowell, a daughter of one of Belfort’s associates, wrote: “You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sort of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals.

“We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behaviour brought America to its knees.”

In the end, Belfort’s world collapses around him, with Lapaglia divorcing him and taking their two children after suffering abuse at his hands. He is indicted by the FBI for securities fraud and money laundering, for which he eventually only served 22 months of a three-year sentence. He was released from prison in 2006.

In return for early release, he agreed to rat out everyone else involved in Stratton Oakmont’s dealings, showing there is no such thing as loyalty under capitalism.

Belfort has since gone on to become a motivational speaker peddling the same belief in the get-rich quick schemes of capitalism. He has also been accused of failing to pay most of the US$110 million (about A$122 million) in restitution to his victims as agreed in his sentencing by US federal prosecutors.

In many ways, Belfort is only one of many crooks who have not paid a big price for the suffering their behaviour has caused. He is typical of the behaviour of the US financial elite that led to the great financial crisis of 2008. For the most part, the biggest crooks have carried on doing business as usual.

Despite the shortcomings of The Wolf of Wall Street, it is worth seeing as a damning depiction of an irrational system based on corporate greed and the pursuit of profit at any cost.


From GLW issue 997