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A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

January 12, 2014

Critics have described The Wolf of Wall Street as Casino meets GoodFellas but without the violence (if you decline to classify visceral drug and sex abuse as self-inflicted violence). In the long tradition of Scorsese’s villain-as-protagonist movies, The Wolf of Wall Street depicts hunger for power, money, drugs, and sex as zeitgeist more than as a character flaw. The movie seems to presume that you desire the same things as Jordan Belfort. Belfort, as narrator, asks who wouldn’t want to be rich and powerful, vacuuming up mounds of cocaine and other drugs with impunity? Never mind that such success requires outright contempt for the countless dopey would-be life-savings investors from middle America that you victimize in order to make your nut. This is America! No, this is Wall Street! Not only is such behavior rewarded, it is required just to stay afloat.

While the comparisons to Scorsese’s other crimelord movies are apt, the movie reminded me more of Inglorious Basterds (and if you read my review of that film, you know where I’m going with this). Both movies are told from the point of view of monsters that the audience is urged (not “intended”) to sympathize with, and not just because they are the focal point of the film. Audiences like larger-than-life rascals having fun. Especially when those rascals win. In both Inglorious Basterds and The Wolf of Wall Street, the audience attaches itself to the gleeful (there is no other word) abandon of anything resembling morals. In Inglorious Basterds, the protagonist Americans’ amorality (scalping, torture, refusal to abide by the rules of war) is purportedly justified because they seek to inflict fear and revenge on a greater immorality. In Wolf of Wall Street, beating Wall Street at its own game, only with more ridiculously outsized and outlandish excesses. We are reminded that Belfort’s conquests are justified because this is Wall Street, the heart of darkness itself. The degree of competition–in and of itself, we are led to believe–justifies Belfort’s explicitly criminal behavior. The spoils of victory allures our appetite for power even as “what it takes” should make our guts churn.

Curiously, critics have divided on whether or not the movie succeeds based on the question of whether Scorsese is too in love with Belfort and the metaphor of excess. They compare Scorsese’s own cocaine addiction to Belfort’s money addiction (yes, money is the chief drug in Wolf), and find a through-line of “excess” in Scorsese’s antihero movies. But with its nonstop depravity, some thought that Wolf was too fully celebrating the excess, overwhelming and smothering the audience with lewdness and lude-ness, rather than counterbalancing it with some measure of moral distance and critique. They are annoyed that the only clear sign of rebuke comes when Belfort finally puts himself and his family in physical danger, rather than when he is fleecing thousands of amateur investors out of their retirement savings.

These critics may have been frustrated that they didn’t get their money’s worth of catharsis by painting Belfort as enough of a villain. Or they may be anticipating the inevitable misinterpretation of the film’s thesis by audiences who idolize antiheroes in the vein of Scarface or the Godfather because they only read the surface level of the narrative. E.g., Wall Street bankers themselves, emitting hoots and cheers as Belfort treats his clients with open contempt or covertly warns his partner that he was wearing a wire.

DiCaprio has compared Belfort’s story to Caligula’s, and that undoubtedly rings true. The difference to a modern audience is that, whereas Caligula’s dalliances and excesses appear patently repugnant and amoral, Belfort’s addiction to money hits a little closer to home. Belfort resembles a few too many people who society has put on a pedestal. These “masters of the universe” seem to act with a little too much impunity these days, and Belfort’s story isn’t exactly reassuring. But to conclude that Scorsese himself is too in love with Belfort and his excesses to maintain the necessary critical distance seems to miss the point.

If we give Scorsese even a shred of credit (though maybe not for his editing skills), Wolf of Wall Street starts to look more like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness than GoodFellas or anything else; the interesting question lies in whether our morals are coherent in the first place. Like Conrad’s Kurtz, Belfort is a “prodigy” and a “genius” at producing previously untold profits, though something seems rotten to anyone who takes a second to consider his operation. Of course, getting so far ahead with such speed in a purely competitive system should raise a red flag for anyone who’s taken Economics 101. Profits are supposed to approach zero in a market where competitors are able to act on equal footing (i.e., within the same legal confines). Both Wolf of Wall Street and Heart of Darkness (are the titles symmetric?) postulate the thesis that money itself is amoral, and the first person to apply that amorality to the means of production will be rewarded. The Dutch colonialist investors in Heart of Darkness praise Kurtz for his ingenuity, turning a blind eye to the fact that Kurtz has deified himself in order to obtain unquestioning obedience and the willingness to perpetuate atrocities for his productivity gains. And the money-hungry audience of Wolf of Wall Street is put in a position to turn a blind eye to the poor saps who lost their shirts to the likes of Belfort because look at how rich he got. Returns to criminality are much greater than they are to legal behavior, and the audience fetishizes the end result far more than any consideration of the means. Those who live in late-stage capitalism have seen too many depravities to care about means anymore. We’re down to “get rich or die tryin’.”

In this light, the lack of moral anchors in Wolf of Wall Street is the disease, not a symptom of weak film-making. Affluenza has taken root in America, after all. The fact that Belfort’s victims are out of sight, out of mind is consistent with the capitalist zeitgeist on the subject. The wealth of Wall Street is equated with the health of the economy, never mind whether that health is sometimes derived from cannibalizing and subjugating everyone else. The only important consideration is that America remains on top, and that anyone can vault themselves into the upper echelons (even if they have to do some jail time as penance). The moral anchors are left behind to say that aspirational working-class citizens have duped themselves into preferring a society that serves the most powerful.

Jonathan Haidt, one of the preeminent analysts of socio-political psychology, attributes this split political personality to different appeals to divergent moral considerations.

Despite being in the wake of a financial crisis that – if the duping theorists were correct – should have buried the cultural issues and pulled most voters to the left, we are finding in America and many European nations a stronger shift to the right. When people fear the collapse of their society, they want order and national greatness, not a more nurturing government.

In short, people don’t want to cry for the losers, they want to cheer on the winners. And when the only real “hero” of Wolf of Wall Street is Special Agent Denham, the unimpeachable FBI agent who is rewarded with a subway ride home as Belfort survives the pathetic legal fallout that ensues, it’s no surprise that the audience–and the zeitgeist in general–views Belfort with greater admiration. As one reviewer put it:

“Wolf” starts with a Fellini-like party on the floor of Belfort’s firm, then freeze-frames on Belfort tossing a dwarf at a huge velcro target, literally and figuratively abusing the Little Guy. The traders get away with their abuse because most people don’t see themselves as little guys, but as little guys who might some day become the big guy doing the tossing. “Socialism never took root in America,” John Steinbeck wrote, “because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

In Haidt’s framework, we care more about a convenient victory narrative than the sanctity of the legal system or the attenuated harm to unsophisticated investors because we Americans want to be in the position of victory some day. The same rationale explains why Americans approved of the Bush tax cuts. Indeed, aspirational cognitive dissonance is not only a product of our time. It seems to be inherent in the (Western) psyche. Shakespeare described exactly the same situation in Julius Caesar (and the larger quotation is illuminating):

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Indeed, Scorsese seems to say, the fault is not in the stars of Wall Street. How could they act any other way? The fault lies in ourselves for failing to apprehend that Caesars will run amok if we let ourselves continue to act as subservient underlings. We have only just created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a teething puppy charged with reining in just one facet of Wall Street’s abuses. And if Wall Street gets its way, it will remain a toothless pup for a long time. Even the FBI has rebranded itself to concentrate on national security, rather than law enforcement generally. Special Agent Denham is Scorsese’s Brutus with a butter knife, and we are left to wonder aloud why Wall Street executives have been let off the hook for fraud prosecutions in the wake of the financial crisis.

To my eye, Scorsese seems to have smuggled a morality tale about turning a blind eye into the theater, forcing us to bear witness. If we see Romulus raised by wolves instead of Julius Caesar, the fault, dear Reader, is not our films, but in ourselves. “The horror! The horror!”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2014 9:17 pm

    Great review. If someone is looking for a better version of a similar Wall Street movie, check out Boiler Room.

  2. January 14, 2014 8:34 pm

    Love this review. It resonates a lot with this book that I read recently: http://www.amazon.com/Models-Behaving-Badly-Confusing-Illusion-Reality-Disaster/dp/1439164991

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