The Wolf of Wall Street

January 25, 2014
Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Wolf of Wall Street' 2013
Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Wolf of Wall Street' 2013

With most films if we can’t find any sympathy for the lead characters it’s a bad night at the cinema. The Wolf of Wall Street is the exception to the rule. A three-hour roller coaster ride that keeps us clinging to the handrail from start to finish, this orgiastic vision of greed and excess on Wall Street throws up hardly a single figure with whom we might identify.

The rogue’s gallery begins with Jordan Belfort, the eponymous “wolf” himself. Belfort is an unscrupulous con artist who grows rich on other people’s money. It’s a role Leonardo DiCaprio has described as that of a man who gave into every temptation, but it’s much worse.

Belfort has a completely amoral approach to self-enrichment. He runs a business in which hundreds of rapacious brokers pressure small investors into buying a mountain of worthless stocks. For much of the time he and his partners are off their faces on cocaine, Quaaludes, and any other substance they can abuse. They are able to identify three different categories of hooker that pay regular visits to the office. Then there are the dwarf throwing contests, or the dare that sees one employee have her head shaved for $10,000.

The question that has divided audiences is: “Does Scorsese’s film glorify Belfort and his cronies?” The investors who are still owed more than $100 million seem to be united in the affirmative. Belfort is portrayed as a villain, but a glamorous, charismatic one. He talks like a man of destiny, making speeches to his staff that any politician or TV evangelist would envy. His lifestyle – all mansions, sportscars and parties – is enough to start audiences salivating. He has a self-righteous contempt for the law and the tax department that is shared by many Americans.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a black comedy that is so relentlessly diverting we hardly have time to stop and consider the consequences of what Belfort is doing. Scorsese’s camera never looks over the fence at those average people whose lives are being ruined by Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont. This is obviously a deliberate aesthetic choice. By avoiding the victims the story sidesteps anything that might become mawkish or moralistic. We are of the devil’s party for the duration, and what a party it is!

The film is anchored by an astonishing performance from DiCaprio, especially in those scenes in which he is debauched senseless. A sequence in which he tries to make a phone call at the Country Club will go down in cinematic history.

Belfort’s partner in crime is Donnie Azoff, played by Jonah Hill, the only character who is less sympathetic than Belfort. Gross, egocentric, ruthless and irritating, Donnie is such a horror that Hill confessed to not finding any redeeming features. He is joined by a bunch of goons who begin their careers as brokers working for Belfort in a converted workshop in suburbia. After a few years they are kitted up in suits and ties, having become lords of Wall Street.

There is not much of a plot per se. Belfort learns the ropes working as a junior broker at a Wall Street firm , where he comes under the influence of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), who is so out of control he sniffs coke at the table of an expensive restaurant. When the firm goes under in the crash of 1987, Jordan rebuilds his career from the bottom up, selling penny stocks to small investors. As his ambition grows, so does his empire.

He ditches his long suffering wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), in favour of trophy bride Naomi (Margot Robbie), who has her own materialistic agenda. The office becomes a circus, full of pumped-up phone jockeys who hammer their clients into submission. Money is the only good, and there is no limit to the amount of money that can be made if one forgets about any sense of duty to the customer. A negative profile in Forbes magazine only enhances Belfort’s reputation, as young brokers clamour to work for him.

Eventually the FBI, in the shape of Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), begins to take an interest in the wolf’s activities. Belfort reacts with indignation to this act of cosmic injustice. Despite all advice, and elaborate schemes to move money out of the country, he can’t believe the good times could ever end. This is the point where we see Belfort as a charlatan who has begun to believe his own propaganda. He is also something of a sociopath, unable to come to terms with the scale of his crimes or even consider that he has done anything wrong.

As this is reputedly a true story one spends much of the film wondering about the real Jordan Belfort, who makes a cameo appearance towards the end. Now in demand as a motivational speaker, Belfort says he is donating 100 percent of his royalties for the book and the film to those investors he cheated. This claim, however, is hotly disputed.

How many more Jordan Belforts are still working on Wall Street? There would be one hell of a movie in the story of Lehman Brothers and its notorious CEO, Dick Fuld. While Belfort was the “wolf” of Wall Street, Fuld was known as the “gorilla”. The worst may be yet to come, but until something even more apalling appears, Scorsese has made the movie to end all Wall Street movies.

The Wolf of Wall Street
USA, rated R
180 mins
Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Terence Winter, from a memoir by Jordan Belfort ; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Joanna Lumley, Jean Dujardin

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 25 January, 2014.