Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is an exhilarating acid trip into the mind of one of the most amoral characters one can imagine. Jordan Belfort, as portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a stock broker with a bottomless appetite for sex, drugs and cold hard cash, and there is no level of fraud and manipulation to which he is not prepared to stoop in order to procure them.
Because the movie is so bloody entertaining, many have suggested that it effectively endorses the reprehensible behavior it depicts. That Scorsese is glorifying Belfort’s ravenous lifestyle as much as he is attacking it. That The Wolf of Wall Street is a celebration of the greediest corners of the contemporary American culture, not a condemnation thereof.
It doesn’t, he isn’t, and it’s not.
In point of fact, The Wolf of Wall Street is as devastatingly honest a portrait of the toxins of Wall Street gluttony as one could hope to find, and Scorsese ought to be lauded for how (deservedly) hard his film is on its wayward protagonist.
The charge of glorification, which has come even from some of the movie’s admirers, is easy enough to understand. After all, what Belfort makes clear above all else—particularly through DiCaprio’s voice-over narration—is that his years of scamming, coke-snorting, pill-popping and hooker-grinding were an epoch of orgiastic glee, and he savored every minute of it.
The slick cars, the potent powders, the gorgeous women—he truly could not get enough. What is more, not only does he not regret the dirty dealings that brought these pleasures about—rather, he boasts about them, as if expecting a pat on the back and a gold watch for his sheer chutzpah.
He was not simply a kid in the candy store. He was a kid who broke into the candy store, trashed it beyond repair and made off with all the jelly beans before the cops finally turned up.
Except that when the authorities dusted for fingerprints, Belfort’s were all over the place, and boy was there hell to pay.
You see, the point is not what Belfort got away with. The point is what happened to him when his luck ran out.
Anyone who views The Wolf of Wall Street as a paean to unfettered greed has overlooked nearly the entire second half of the film, during which (spoiler alert!) Belfort’s shenanigans lead to the collapse of his marriage, a prolonged FBI investigation into his business practices and a prison term of some 22 months.
Like Henry Hill, the would-be hero of Scorsese’s GoodFellas, Belfort realizes his dream of untold riches only to have the rug pulled from beneath his feet, as the universe’s arc of justice finally catches up with him to deliver well-deserved retribution (albeit not nearly enough).
I submit that no reasonable person would view this film in its entirety and conclude that Belfort’s life is one worth emulating. In an admittedly roundabout way, The Wolf of Wall Street demonstrates that carrying on such a morally decrepit existence, however ephemerally enjoyable, is ultimately not worth the trouble.
Of course the good times were a blast. That’s what makes them the good times. Do you think Belfort would’ve made the effort if it was all a drag? Please. The movie wouldn’t be credible any other way.
The Wolf of Wall Street succeeds for the same reason most anti-smoking campaigns fail. It presents the whole story of Jordan Belfort—the good, the bad and the smarmy—and trusts its audience to conclude that it amounted to a wasted life.
Kid-targeted anti-drug ads tend not to work because they skip right to the nasty effects of dodgy substances without bothering to explore why one is driven to use them in the first place. To suggest that drugs are 100 percent bad—that they carry no benefits whatever—is to risk losing one’s intended audience in the first round. Even children know the difference between propaganda and truth.
Scorsese’s movie treats its viewers as adults. It portrays Jordan Belfort’s illegal hanky panky as a grand old time because, for him, that’s exactly what it was.
That does not mean the movie condones everything, or anything, that he does. If you watch The Wolf of Wall Street and come away with a net positive impression of its protagonist and his way of life, the problem is not with Scorsese. The problem is with you.