After a screening of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street you may feel understandably stunned. The veteran filmmaker’s latest creative endeavor is a modern epic, running three hours, about debauchery and excess within an infamous NYC trading company. Ex-convict and former drug addict/financial executive/fraudster Jordan Belfort , played fearlessly by Leonardo DiCaprio, serves as the subject of the film. Wolf is based on Belfort’s memoir by the same name. In the late 1980s Belfort formed a “over –the-counter” brokerage firm called Stratton Oakmont affiliated with Wall Street, though located on Long Island. Belfort managed to build a multi-million dollar firm rooted in ruthless sales of worthless stocks, rampant drug use, exploitation of women, and all manner of crime. Eventually Belfort was targeted and arrested by the FBI. However, what is most upsetting about the film is that a great deal of the outrageous story line is true!
Scorsese’s choice to render Belfort’s memoir for the screen has a number of people upset. Belfort’s former partner’s daughterwrote and open letter decrying the film as glorification of a conman. A veteran screenwriter allegedly shouted ‘shame on you’ following a screening at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). And yet, Wolf looks to be a financialsuccess though is it has divided critics. As Europe begins to get a taste of it, the film is likely to receive more acceptance and more financial gains. After I saw it, I was definitely floored. Although, my first reaction, like many, it to judge the film harshly for its unabashed portrayal of all manner hedonism, that may be too simple a response. Instead, I have searched within myself to understand why Wolf is so disturbing, polarizing and yet intriguing. In this way, I accept a minority of critics’ assessment that Wolf may be a call to action in a manner unseen for years. Akin to the 1932 film Scarface about rampant gang violence during prohibition, The Wolf of Wall Street may present a real opportunity for people stare financial corruption squarely in the eye and say “hell no!” I would take it a step further and argue that Wolf provides an opportunity to decry the greatest harbingers of corruption: patriarchy, greed and white collar crime.
A March 2013 poll released by Ms. Magazine of women presidential voters revealed over half of women self-identify as feminists; 54% of older women and 58% of younger women. Additionally the number increased to 68% overall when the dictionary definition of feminist was provided. In recent weeks, pop icon Beyoncé Knowles has come forward with her own embodiment of feminism (her latest album includes a TED Talk on feminism by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). Although the album has caused a bit of stir, it reveals a spectrum of women actively engaged in the fight for equal rights. Wolf is directed by a man, stars almost all men, and features women primarily as the playthings of men. However, infuriating this may be, in the world of finance, the heart of global economic domination, this is the reality. When women in Wolf speak for themselves it is often with the voice of a woman assimilating to a system of male domination.
The majority of women in the film have bit parts as wives, assistants, prostitutes and trophy pieces. The film depicts marital rape, domestic violence, sexual exploitation and sexist microaggressions—all as part of a male saturated, drug induced, money obsessed lifestyle. Nadine Belfort, a remarkable beauty, played by Margot Robbie, uses her sexuality as a primary means of access to male dominated power. Women on the trade floor are depicted as hard-nosed characters with a penchant for cursing and condoning the sexual misadventures of male colleagues. Actress Stephanie Kurtzuba plays star trader Kimmie Belzer, a single mother who joined the firm when down on her luck. In one of many evangelical scenes when Belfort, aka DiCaprio, takes to a stage in front of traders to motivate sales, he addresses Belzer directly. Belfort recounts their first meeting and how he gave her a large cash advance—a larger some than she requests— upon her hiring because he “believed in her.” This speech comes about at a time when Belfort is likely to be pinched by the FBI and decides to leave the firm. Although, Belzer is visibly moved, she restrains her tears as best she can and says something to the effect of “I fucking love you…” Such masculine and restrained displays of emotion are expected from women in the world of finance. As with racial acculturation that demands a minority assimilate the norms of the ruling class, women in male dominated environments must do the same. I don’t know about you, but I am sick of this dynamic and Wolf only makes me sicker. I doubt Scorsese, who recently wrote atouching open letter to his young daughter about the future of film, personally sees women as marginal (though he didn’t mention any women directors in his letter...) However, as a filmmaker he has no problem, for better or worse, in pinching that nerve that should make any feminist outraged about the depth of disregard men can have for women.
Greed. Greed is a major player in Wolf. Just as women are sidelined in the film, greed is center stage. It’s hard to accept the depth of corruption that you envisage in The Wolf of Wall Street. To start, the basis of Jordan Belfort’s business is selling shoddy stocks through what is commonly known as a ‘pump and dump.’ Brokers at Stratton Oakmont would drive up share prices that they sold to clients then Belfort and his partners would sell the large portions they owned, causing the share price to collapse. This left Stratton's clients with hefty losses. Belfort made millions this way, earning as much as $50 million a year. Oakmont’s utter disregard for thousands of people, people trying to capture the same ‘American Dream’ that Belfort was railroading them for, is hard to take. A great deal of criticism about the film extends from the facelessness of Belfort’s victims (though a New Yorker piece makes a compelling case for the nontraditional presence of his victims in the film). What you do see, is money-hungry men leading other men and some women into a wilderness of Ferraris and voracious criminality.
Just as Belfort’s shenanigans came to an end, today’s moguls are in crisis about when their end may come. A recent article in The Atlantic Magazine entitled “Is Capitalism in Trouble?”explores growing paranoia among executives of a plausible rebellion by the 99%. In recent months a series of activities support their concern: Occupy Wall Street, December 2013 nationalstrike of low wage workers, and the address of rampant inequality by Pope Francis and President Obama. Therefore, films like Wolf coupled with the January 2014, fifty year anniversary of the flawed ‘War on Poverty,’ fuel anxiety over what’s to come for the vast majority of Americans (and the globe). In this way The Wolf of Wall Street is vulgar depiction of the modern era and it isn’t pretty—it’s farcical and unsustainable.
The scariest part is that Jordon Belfort is the tip of the iceberg. Stratton Oakmont was not
even housed on Wall Street, but on Long Island. Furthermore, at his height, Belfort’s wealth and power pales in comparison to top executives of other corporations and financial institutions. In one of the few articles by a woman on Wolf Lynn Stuart Parramore extols, “People like Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein and JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, whose sophistication and scope leave the Belforts in the dust, are presented in the mass media largely as reputable men who deserve our admiration, or at worst, absentee managers off paring their fingernails while their underlings cook the books and launder the cash and take the bribes.”
By the end of The Wolf of Wall Street the audience is left with an eerie feeling. Belfort has served his time and is addressing an audience in his new role as a motivational speaker. Without detailing the haunting conclusion, it feels as though we, in the audience, also want to learn how he does it—how do you sell, cheat, hoard for yourself? Nearly all the messages we get today are laced with the need to be wealthy in order to be happy. In fact, the message is more like: get rich, be happy and become a philanthropist (to stay happy). This model allows us to see male corporate executives as elusive fathers from whom we must seek mentorship. Although Belfort is ‘outed’ as a criminal, Wolf asks the audience to decide whether we condone patriarchy, greed and crime in society or just want to yell at the movie screen.