Martin Scorsese’s latest epic, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a sex and drugs laden motion picture set in recent American history, the easy money rip off days of the late 1980s and early ’90s. The film features more sex and naked flesh than a film set in the world of porn, and as much drug use as a film set in a disco or the world of drugs. What is unique about the film is that all this sex and drugs is not set in the typical worlds of debauchery one would picture. American films have long used crime, underworld, and ethnic settings to put on morality tales of how low a human life can go. This is a film however, set in the world of stock trading, and finance. Since the recent world wide economic recession has been largely blamed on the world of finance, it’s particularly timely. The criminal financial avarice of the character being potrayed with diverse hedonistic verve by Leonardo Dicaprio, Jordan Belfort, a real life penny stock con artist, gives truth and proof to the claims many from the inner city have made over the years. I’d often heard it said growing up in the city that the real crooks are in the white collar world. Jordan Belfort, like Bernie Madoff, is one such crook. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is not a morality tale however. It’s special ambiguity comes from the same source as the ambiguity in gangster rap or films like “Superfly” and “Scarface.” Although we can be sure the principals of the film feel the actions of their characters are wrong, the film cuts no corners in showing the larger than life extravagence of their lifestyles, like a Hype Williams video set on a luxury yacht in 1997. Rather than coming off as a morality tale, it comes off like reality rappers used to speak of their art, as a journalistic excursion into “how it really is.”
The film is the fifth cinematic collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio. It’s also about the third over the top character in a row DiCaprio has potrayed, following the spoiled boy Prince slaveowner Calvin Candie in Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”, and the suave respectability craving Thug Jay Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby.” Here, he plays real life con artist stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who’s real life exploits were covered in an issue of Forbes Magazine, in the early 90s. Amazingly, after his firm, Stratton Oakfort was exposed in the magazine, they had a line outside the door of people seeking employment, an incident documented in the film.
Belfort starts off as a stock broker in the late ’80s at a well established Wall Street firm. His boss Mark Hanna, potrayed with suave corruption by Matthew McConaugey, turns him out over lunch early in his tenure at the firm. Hanna casually snorts cocaine over lunch and tells Belfort cocaine and regular masturbation are the keys to his survival in the stock business.
Hanna also makes a statement that typifies what many see as the problem in the American economy over the past fifty years or so. Gil Scott Heron touched on the same thing in his classic song, “B Movie.” Hanna told Belfort that not only was it not necessary for the stocks he sold to do well for his clients, it could also be counter productive. Hanna goes on to tell him his only goal was to make money, and the profit for the consumer was not as important as the profit for himself and the firm.
Belfort loses his job after Black Monday, the Wall Street crash in 1987 that was the worse since the Great Depression. The late ’80s were full of financial upheavels many trace back to the “Greed is good” financial deregulations of the decade. More such were to follow in the ’90s. Belfort takes this hustlers mentality with him to the world of penny stocks. He finds out that his commission selling these junk stocks would be an extremely high 50%. I can remember my father getting plastic packets in the mail in the ’80s and ’90s with companies selling their penny stocks, because he’d always let me look through them and play with them. Belfort here comes upon the great insight that makes him rich: a crappy product is actually ideal to sell for a creative salesman with a mouthpiece, it’s almost as if his creative ability to B.S was amplified by the improbability of the success of his product. Belfort blows up and opens his own brokerage house in a car garage, with several weed dealing friends, and a dude married to his cousin, potrayed with hilarious creepville douchebagness by Jonah Hill.
From there we’re treated to sex, hookers, endless scenes of cocaine usage and hilarious scenes of the folly such induce. There is one hilarious episode with DiCaprio crawling to his sports car under the influence of quaaludes, and another featuring an ill advised trip on a yacht.
All in all, I’m not sure “The Wolf of Wall Street” is quite the epic it aims to be. If it is, it’s because a movie that takes on the greed of our recent American epoch. At some point in America, people began to make money rather than produce goods of value. I grew up in the ’90s when the conversation was that money was easier to make than ever. This was celebrated in the hip hop and popular culture of the times, like MTV Cribs. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is interesting, because unlike literary epics of old, it does not attack the rich. It attacks those attempting to be rich, mostly from the lower and middle classes, and the loss of morality that attempt can often lead to. This has often been seen from the vantage point of drug dealers, pimps, atheletes, prostitutes, strippers, and other denizens of society’s lower rungs, but it is refreshing to see it take place in a middle to upper class, white setting. In that way, it makes the claim that the same disease affecting the feet and ass, also affects the head. Greed is a part of the American way no matter where on the plane you sit. The entertainment value of the film is the entertainment value of Biggie Smalls or Cash Money Records at its height, an urestrained, unquestioning celebration of carnal pleasures and money. However, it’s very clear to the audience watching the party that it has to come to an end at some point. However, Belfort, in that most American of ways, is able to reinvent himself as a motivational speaker after his jail term, pushing a different kind of hustle. The film could have easily worked under a title of another film out concurrently, “American Hustle”, in the way “American Gangster” worked for the Denzel flick. So if you check out “The Wolf of Wall Street”, make sure to enjoy a party you probably have too high a sense of morality and common sense to attend in real life.