February Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 10 years ago

There’s a scene in Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, in which the father of protagonist Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the American stockbroker who was arrested for securities fraud and stock market manipulation and on whose memoir the film is based, reprimands him about his excessively hedonistic lifestyle: “Crazy? This is obscene,” the bearded man says matter-of-factly to his mildly amused son.

These words, in a sense, pretty much sum up the premise of the entire film. Leading a lifestyle of endless partying, sex, drugs and scamming investors with exaggerated claims and empty promises, Belfort and his friends and employees at Stratton Oakmont are the embodiment of the American Dream gone wrong (think Wall Street meets Fear and Loathing meets The Jerry Springer Show). The men and women at Belfort’s firm are painfully obnoxious, alarmingly superficial, excessively materialistic and sickeningly selfish – and quite happy to be so. Or, as one film critic put it, “The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours of horrible people doing horrible things and admitting to being horrible.”

Born and bred in Queens, a 22-year-old Belfort arrives in Manhattan by way of public transport to a new job at a successful Wall Street firm. However, just one day into the job, and Black Monday takes place, resulting in the firm having to shut down. Out of desperation and poor job market prospects, Belfort takes a job at a boiler room, where he quickly makes an impression on his colleagues, impressing them with his ability to score with investors by smooth-talking and downright deceiving them with misleading information. Along with his friends – a law school graduate, a salesman and four small-time drug dealers – Belfort sets up his own firm called Stratton Oakmont in a shady garage in Long Island, before moving up to a proper office. An unflattering article in Forbes that christens Belfort as ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, depending on your outlook on humanity) leads to hundreds of applicants wanting to be part of his firm.

Belfort, equipped with unbridled ambition, the gift of the gab and a band of merry followers who absorb everything he says as if it’s gospel – and in the godless world of Wall Street, Belfort comes across as a preacher of sorts ­­­– rises from remarkably unremarkable beginnings (“a former member of the middle-class, the child of two accountants”)  to owning his own firm, mansion, 174 ft. yacht, a private jet, six cars and a trophy wife (Margot Robbie). He also develops a serious drug addiction, which seems to be an essential component of the job: “I take Quaaludes 10-15 times for my ‘back pain,’ Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, pot to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again and morphine because, well, it’s awesome.”

The Wolf of Wall Street is darkly funny and entertaining, even if over-the-top, and would have gotten a good rating from me ­– had it been a fictitious account (though it’s so absurd that it might as well have been). However, when keeping in mind all the people – 1,500 in total, many who have still not been repaid, despite a court order demanding $110 million in restitution – affected by Belfort’s greed, this really is no laughing matter. Belfort’s father warns him that, “One day, the chickens are gonna come home to roost,” but we never really get a sense of this ever happening, in the film or in real life. Twenty two months in prison for someone who essentially ruined the lives of many small-time investors, and then ratted out on his colleagues in exchange for a shorter sentence, is hardly karma. The fact that a con man is now a free man and a successful motivational speaker, who people down on their luck pay money to hear, must count as some kind of twisted joke in itself.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s February 2014 issue under the headline, “Of Wolves and Sheep.”

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.