Check the Fine Print: What Exactly is The Wolf of Wall Street Selling?

Does the razzle-dazzle beauty of Martin Scorsese’s new film seduce in a way that obscures the horrors within?

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is like a charismatic uncle, regaling the dinner table with stories of his youth. It tells tales of irresponsible debauchery in days gone by, featuring the usual gang of no-good scoundrels and their handsome ringleader. It leaves us with a sense that the conquests are exaggerated and certain details have been artfully left out: Wolf is a selective trip down memory lane.

The memoir-turned-film follows stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) on his rise to Wall Street infamy, an ill-gotten fortune, and a drug-fuelled life of indulgent corruption. Accordingly, the film is very Jordan-centric, very Leo-centric. Belfort is the star and our guide through Scorsese’s three-hour long portrayal of his escapades. It’s an autobiography of self-indulgence, accompanied by a relentless profanity-steeped monologue that DiCaprio delivers with a browbeating fluidity.

At its peak, Belfort’s lifestyle appears insane. He throws lobsters at cops, stuffs his sofa with cocaine, and jokes about “safety first” while his team prepares to fire midgets at a giant dartboard. Wolf shoves this sort of stuff down our throats with an implied expectation that all its macho bravado will wow us into admiration: a very ‘Belfort’ idea. It’s easy to imagine the man himself watching with us, calling out the skeptics with a slew of expletives, daring us not to be impressed. After all, DiCaprio has already been awarded a Golden Globe for his performance, and the film has garnered four BAFTA nominations, as well another five nominations in the Academy Awards, including Best Actor and Best Picture.

Yet something sinister lurks in Wolf’s extravagance. I feel uneasy watching as a female employee is paid $10,000 to shave her head and use the money for a breast augmentation; I cringe as Belfort’s right hand man (Jonah Hill) masturbates in public. In another scene, our protagonist finds himself on a jet plane, forcibly restrained and hung-over. The scene cuts to a flashback of the drunken hours past, and we see an intoxicated Belfort sloppily groping an unwilling flight attendant while dry humping her like an over-sexed dog. According to his wingman, Donnie, he also called the pilot “the ‘N’ word.” Cut to Belfort’s face, eyes agape, and head several brain cells lighter. He’s screwed up.

My neighbours in the audience are exchanging raised eyebrows and stifling chuckles. “Tut, tut, Wolfy’s up to his old tricks again,” their knowing smiles seem to say. We never see the racial slur on screen; perhaps Scorsese decided audiences wouldn’t find it palatable, and rightly so. Calling someone the ‘N’ word isn’t a laughable slip-of-the-tongue, but here, anecdotal and sanitised, the act takes on that quality. There is evidence enough in the sniggers I hear throughout the cinema. It is this sort of trivialisation that leaves me unable to laugh along with Belfort’s antics.

Perhaps that’s because when I say “antics,” I really mean criminality and exploitation: there’s money laundering, fraud, rape, domestic violence, illegal drug-use, and a penchant for paid sex of the most dubious and demeaning kind. And that’s excluding the kind of decadent lifestyle that may not technically be illegal but seems criminally insane (think: throwing money in the trash-can for fun). Belfort seems like the kind of guy who would use $100 bills to insulate his house, just because he could. He’s certainly the kind of guy who gets loaded on cocaine, rapes and beats up his wife, and tries to kidnap their daughter. Jordan Belfort… what a rascal.

Leonardo DiCaprio has told the Los Angeles Times that viewers are “missing the boat if they don’t realize that this is a cautionary tale.” Unfortunately, I think the cautionary aspect of Wolf is not a boat to be missed so much as a ship, easily passed in the night. Exactly what we are being cautioned against is also unclear—if it’s becoming multi-millionaires via fraud en masse, I think we’ll be okay. And although a few short scenes near the end of the film offer us a glimpse of domestic terror, they sit in the margins and provide little counterpoint to the dominant narrative of Belfort’s rise to riches. Even when he’s reduced to a cocaine-funneling, violent mess, the greatest tragedy presented is not Belfort’s loss of humanity, but his loss of prestige and power.

Don’t get me wrong; The Wolf of Wall Street is a well-made film. I just feel a little conflicted. I can see so many things that I find questionable about Scorsese’s portrayal of Belfort and the literal invisibility of his victims, while another part of me is captivated by the storytelling and the drama. I want to see how far he’s going to push this, how it will all end.

In a sense, writing this review feels like an exercise in analysing guilty pleasure, confronting the reasons for the guilt, and asking if the pleasure it gives us is justifiable. Scorsese makes this difficult, because screen time seems to be allocated on the basis of how much Jordan Belfort cares. His first wife disappears from the film after he dumps her, the victims of his fraudulent business practice are unseen and nameless, and the cop investigating his case (Kyle Chandler) is barely characterised. The last we see of him, he’s riding the subway—a moment that only serves to prove that Belfort ‘got to him’ on some level. Scorsese almost entirely excludes Belfort’s victims and antagonists from any significant role in shaping our impression of him.

In doing this, although falling short of anything I’d call relatability, Scorsese allows us to adopt a certain affection for Belfort, for us to momentarily forgive his ‘mistakes’ as we are swept up in the wealth-porn, plot-twists, and hilarity on screen. In turn, those ‘mistakes’ are easily forgotten or brushed aside. There’s a sense that Belfort’s world belongs to the realm of the fantastic. His lifestyle is one that’s inaccessible to the greater portion of the one percent, let alone the other ninety-nine. It’s very human to be intrigued by the ‘other’. Scorsese taps into this intrigue and allows the glossy veneer of Belfort’s ‘fantasy’ to remain alive while diminishing the less savoury reality that it actually comprises. This only feels permissible because most of us will never be in a position to live that kind of life. It all becomes unreal, inconsequential, imaginary.

But is there anything wrong with Scorsese’s myth-making? Potentially. Screenwriter Terence Winter said, “It makes me laugh when people say, ‘You’re glorifying this.’ No, it’s being depicted and I can’t imagine coming away from that and saying, ‘Oh, I’d like to be that guy, high on drugs and having my life unravel completely.’”[1] Sure, Wolf is a depiction, but any depiction of reality is never neutral. It embodies the values, ideologies, and intentions of its authors, by virtue of their choosing what is and is not depicted. In critiquing such a story, we must be alive to those biases because horror and beauty are not mutually exclusive—Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange comes to mind—and it’s the interplay between the two that deserves care and consideration.

I find Wolf’s brand of razzle-dazzle beauty seductive in a way that obscures the horrors within. The film’s brightly ironic dissipation is infectious, and the callousness of its characters is easy for an audience to adopt.

One of the many great things about art is its capacity not only to entertain, but to address horror and exploitation in a way that enhances peoples’ human responses to such realities. Winter’s statement contains a partial truth. Most viewers do not come away from Wolf with the desire to be “high on drugs” and have their lives “unravel,” but that’s not where the danger lies. It lies in the normalisation of the societal attitudes that condone Belfort’s exploits. These attitudes are the same ones that see Paula Deen given a standing ovation, that ensure Terry Richardson still has a career in the fashion industry, and that foster the violence of New Zealand’s Roast Busters. Wolf doesn’t explicitly encourage these outcomes, but it is complicit in the kind of moral agnosticism that enables them to continue. The thrill of Belfort’s story may provide an entertaining distraction, but the loudest voices in The Wolf of Wall Street are telling us that “boys will be boys,” and the worst that they’ll face is a cinematic slap on the wrist.

Dir. Martin Scorsese,
USA, 2013; 180 minutes
Featuring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley.

[1] Olsen, Mark. “Oscars 2014: Academy embraces polarizing ‘Wolf of Wall Street’”,, January 17, 2014.