The other day I watched Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and I’m trying to sort out my thoughts about it as best I can.
Firstly, Wolf of Wall Street is a film about money.
And that makes it a little difficult for me to analyze it coherently. Because, to be honest, although I have strong opinions about both money and movies, I don’t understand them all that well. Not in the way that I understand, say, literature. Which isn’t to say that I know everything there is to know about literature, but I do have an understanding of how it works at a basic level, and I have the vocabulary to be able to talk about it, and I’ve spent enough time with it to be able to form educated opinions about it. But where money and movies are concerned, for the most part all I have is intuition. I know how I feel about things, I know what I think, but I don’t have a basis of technical understanding in economics or in film theory from which to defend my opinions. Which is all to say that I’m sort of shooting from the hip here, so keep that in mind.
I’m going to ignore the fact that the movie is based on the real Jordan Belfort (yes, he’s real) and focus on the story as presented in the movie. Lately I’ve taken to thinking about the movies I watch in terms of the questions they make me ask, whether I ask them as I’m watching or afterwards, and that’s how I’m going to approach and structure my thoughts here.
What makes this movie “a Scorsese”?
I found myself asking this one right off the bat. Because a lot of times, if you’re not paying attention, Wolf of Wall Street can start to look like a little bit of a party movie. Granted, it would make for a weird party movie, but I think if you’re not careful it’s easy to get lost in the bacchanalia and forget the larger picture and purpose. So I started trying to mentally identify parallels between this and other Scorsese movies I’ve seen. These are a few that I noticed:
1. It’s American, through and through. And if you think about it, Scorsese makes American movies. And it goes deeper, I think, than the fact that they take place on American soil. It’s about aspects of American culture and its subcultures — Italian immigrants, Irish immigrants, gangsters, the insane, the super-rich, et cetera, et cetera — and how these people relate to their American surroundings. How America changes, or allows them to be, or makes them who they are.
2. The protagonist is a strong character, and the story is driven in large part by his character. And I think that strong-willed characters are something that Scorsese gravitates towards. Whenever I found myself asking why something was being shown in the movie — why show the debauchery in such detail? — the answer always came back in the form of Jordan Belfort’s character. The drugs and the sex aren’t glorified by the movie as a whole, they’re presented as pieces of a much larger story about a much larger character.
3. Excess is a major theme: something of a rondo in Scorsese’s body of work. In this case it’s monetary excess and greed. In other cases it’s excess of violence, or maybe even excess of dishonesty, but always some tendency, some “sin,” is taken to its most extreme. And it’s almost like some of the scenes from Wolf of Wall Street were conceived by asking, what’s the most ridiculous thing you can imagine doing if you were rich enough not to care? Would you throw cooked lobsters down the stairs of your yacht at FBI agents? Maybe you’d fly, and crash, a helicopter into your backyard while stoned out of your mind. Maybe you’d have an orgy on the private plane on the way to your Vegas bachelor party. You name it, you got it. And that’s part of what this movie’s about.
Is Belfort right about anything?
I said before that Wolf of Wall Street is a movie about money. Even when it’s not about money — when it’s about relationships, or drug addiction, or whatever it may be — it’s about money. But it’s not about money for money’s sake. That’s perhaps what Jordan Belfort is about, but it’s not what the movie’s about. The movie is about forcing you to confront the reality of wealth, and to some extent also the reality of income inequality. And it does this by making Jordan Belfort such a compelling character. Heck, sometimes he’s downright likable.
So, when, if ever, is he right about money? Here’s something he says in the very beginning of the movie:
Money doesn’t just buy you a better life — better food, better cars, better pussy — it also makes you a better person. You can give generously to the church of your choice or the political party. You can save the fucking spotted owl with money.
You know the bromide, “money can’t buy happiness.” But that’s just not true, and the reason goes deeper than the Daniel Tosh joke about it. If you’re not convinced that money can buy happiness in the world as it is today, then consider the statement’s antithesis: money, or want (or need) of money, can cause misery. That is unquestionably true. Unemployment, debt, poverty, homelessness, malnutrition, starvation, exploitation — these social problems all center on money (or goods that money can buy) and who has it and who doesn’t. And if lack of money can cause misery, then having money can “buy” happiness. That doesn’t mean it will or that it often does. But it can. And that’s an uncomfortable truth to consider. Because, after all…
What is money?
A little further into the movie, Matthew McConaughey’s character points out to a young Belfort that the stocks (i.e. the capital, i.e. the money) that he and his fellow brokers trade in is, as he puts it, “fairy dust.” It’s not real.
Money is a medium of exchange. I remember once I saw a picture of the Earth with this text printed on it: “Humans are the only species that pay to live on Earth.” And that was revolutionary for me, because I had never thought about it in those terms. But it’s also not totally true.
We all know from elementary school history that money replaced the barter system. And the barter system replaced the catch-your-own-food-or-die system. Because nature kind of sucks. And staying alive is hard, whether you’re a person or a parakeet (or a wolf). With or without money, living takes work. All we did with money was create a means of managing the resources we work for in a way that’s more convenient than trying to carry the products of our labor around with us all the time. It’s a system created for and by society, and although it’s not completely analogous with the order of things in the “natural” world, and although it’s got its problems, it does function. And it’s been functioning for a while.
“Money is the oxygen of capitalism” –Jordan Belfort
Fact is, money has the power it does because the world today is capitalistic. Even countries that are nominally socialist participate in global markets in some form. And I’m not going to get into whether I think capitalism is a good thing or not, because it’ll probably end with somebody calling me a commie. So I’ll just leave it there.
And now for something completely different:
Why do I keep thinking about Jay Gatsby?
I mean aside from the obvious, “Leo DiCaprio is playing a rich guy and you found pictures of both characters holding up wine glasses in remarkably similar poses,” answer.
Both Belfort and Gatsby are what American literature professors everywhere like to call “self-made men.” The concept is said to have started with Ben Franklin, even though it was Frederick Douglass who first used the term. But whoever created it, the archetype of the self-made man (or woman) (by the way, did anyone else find the characters in this movie uncomfortably sexist?) has been rippling through American history for a long time. It’s even, apparently, rippled its way into novels and screenplays right up to the present day. Both of the characters started from relative obscurity and rose to become their vision of excellence.
Both of the characters’ visions of excellence converge on the subject of wealth. The conflation of wealth and success is arguably an American ideal, and both of these characters embody it, albeit in different ways. Which is, I think, important. Because if both characters embody the their respective zeitgeists, we can learn a lot about who we are and where we’ve come from by examining where, why, and how they differ.
Their motivations for acquiring wealth are different. Gatsby does it for a woman he loves. His defining characteristic is hope. Belfort does it for the money itself, and not hope, but greed is his defining motivation. There is no relationship in Wolf of Wall Street that takes precedence over money. The one time Belfort tries to place a relationship over other considerations — when he warns Jonah Hill’s character about the wire — it stabs him in the back (and their relationship was itself founded on money).
They also differ in where they end up. Gatsby ends up dead in his pool. Belfort ends up as a motivational speaker. What does that say about the fruits of riches, or of greed, or of hope? No, seriously, what does it say? Because I’m not sure.
Was it worth it?
Of all the questions, this is by far the most interesting to me. Belfort basically got a slap on the wrist for all of his transgressions, legally speaking. Some fines and a few dozen months in prison (which apparently wasn’t so bad: “I’m not ashamed to admit, when we arrived to prison, I was absolutely terrified… I needn’t have been… For a brief, fleeting moment, I’d forgotten I was rich and lived in America.”).
So was it worth it? For him? For me, if I had been in his shoes?
In terms of the legal consequences, absolutely. But contrary to what Belfort may want to believe, not everything has a dollar sign on it. Lost and squandered relationships can’t be bought back. Two wives, his kids, his friends: most, if not all, of them are gone for good. I’ve never tried cocaine or Quaaludes, so I guess whether one side balances the other is a bit beyond my area of expertise, but I doubt it.
Carpe diem is a motto that’s flung around a lot these days. And if anybody seized the day while they had it, it was Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street. He did what he wanted when he wanted, and he had the means to have extravagant desires. The way I see it, we either condemn the man, or we condemn the aphorism.
I like Mark Hughes’ review of the movie in Forbes. The second to last paragraph is the best part of it, I think. It reads:
This is a story about financial extremes and the attempt is to make us look past the surface and comprehend the deeper message. The film does not condemn Wall Street or capitalism. It condemns exploitation, and it condemns those who are unconcerned with or bored by exploitation except when it targets the “wrong” people. Most of all, it condemns the fact we are accustomed to exploitation and abuses, that we in fact on some level seem to excuse it so long as people were successful at it. We almost seem to admire it, and the film is subtly telling us this is why the excess exists, and why it is punished so modestly — not merely because those with the power are addicted to it and abuse it, but because the vast majority of the rest of us allow it to go on and on some level imagine that perhaps we’ll be invited to the party, too.
I think the reason it’s hard to answer the question of whether or not it was worth it is because deep down we might still be hoping that someday our turn will come for the fun and games, that “perhaps we’ll be invited to the party, too.” And we wouldn’t want to find our foot in our mouth when that day comes.