Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street has been roundly praised by critics and welcomed by Christmastime moviegoers, but it's received a frostier reception from an altogether more exclusive set of observers: those personally victimized by the real wolf, Jordan Belfort.
Naturally, that includes those hapless investors swindled by Belfort's Stratton Oakmont firm into purchasing fraudulent stocks and losing thousands of dollars. Those byproducts of Belfort's greed were the subject of a recent Times Dealbook feature that's worth reading in full. Here's a quick taste of how some are greeting the movie adaptation:
For many of them — small-business owners and people like Steve Orton, a State Farm insurance agent from Alpharetta, Ga. — the publicity for the movie has brought back the old pain. Still, Mr. Orton said, while “it kind of sickens me, I really feel like I owe it to myself to complete the circle to see it.”
Ken Minor, a real estate appraiser in Gilroy, Calif., said the experience “hurt me pretty bad.” He drew on a home equity line of credit to buy stocks with Mr. Belfort’s brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, and still has not repaid it. “I’m not a rich guy,” he said, “and I’ve been paying for it ever since.”
But the list of Belfort's victims ought also to include Christina McDowell, whose father, it seems, collaborated with Belfort on some of his petty schemes, only to wind up in prison after the wolf-turned-informant testified against him. McDowell's open letter to the filmmakers "and the wolf himself," which appears in L.A. Weekly, has quickly become a bit of a manifesto for those viewers troubled by Scorsese's almost grotesque fetishization of greed. An excerpt:
Belfort's victims, my father's victims, don't have a chance at keeping up with the Joneses. They're left destitute, having lost their life savings at the age of 80. They can't pay their medical bills or help send their children off to college because of characters like the ones glorified in Terry Winters' screenplay.
Let me ask you guys something. What makes you think this man deserves to be the protagonist in this story? Do you think his victims are going to want to watch it? Did we forget about the damage that accompanied all those rollicking good times? Or are we sweeping it under the carpet for the sale of a movie ticket?
So: are we? McDowell's scathing take prompts some worthwhile questions. Spoilers may follow (though, frankly, it's hard to "spoil" a film that has as inevitable a plotline as Wolf of Wall Street).
Does making Belfort the "protagonist" make the film an endorsement of his douchebaggery?
Well, no. Of course not. Scorsese carries with him a long filmography of desperately masculine and intensely flawed protagonists—think Jake LaMotta, Travis Bickle, and Henry Hill, for instance. And Wolf's view of Belfort's greed is so unflinching as to be nauseating in parts, unless you aspire to be a stockbroker billionaire snorting coke off of prostitutes' asses, which—well, we'll get to that in a bit.
Anyway: whether Scorsese condemns Belfort enough—or whether it's his job to do so in any sort of moralistic fashion—is another question. Vulture's David Edelstein points to Taxi Driver as having drawn a thicker wall between subject and filmmaker. But Wolf, too, establishes Belfort as a fundamentally unreliable narrator (even if an outrageously entertaining one), most memorably during the already-infamous driving-on-Quaaludes scene. Only thing is, Belfort's the only narrator, the only vantage point Wolf provides for his crimes. Which brings us to:
How does Scorsese's film depict Belfort's victims?
It doesn't, for the most part. They're invisible—voices on the other end of the cold-call phone lines. It's understandable, given that cinematic treatment, for those who lost life savings to Belfort's greed to feel played. And it's easy for audiences to forget that white-collar crime isn't victimless crime, that Stratton Oakmont's swindling cost real human collateral.
Consider that what's discomfiting about Wolf, then, isn't how it glorifies the bad guys, but how it steers clear of the victims entirely. Admittedly, that'd make for a less glamorous movie.
Why do people complain about how immoral Wolf of Wall Street is when they loved Casino and Goodfellas?
The parallel isn't so silly as it may seem. Not only is Wolf another three-hour epic about organized crime, it bears the flashy tone, fast narration style, and decadent plot arc of Casino (and, to a lesser degree, Goodfellas) to a startling degree. Scorsese replaced De Niro with DiCaprio as his go-to male lead years ago; now, Jonah Hill makes a surprisingly adept fast-talking sidekick seemingly modeled after Joe Pesci.
Those films, you'll recall, are full of scummy mobsters carrying out hits and putting people's heads in vices. So why's Wolf making us so squeamish?
Here's one reason: part of what makes mob movies so alluring are the complex and inscrutable honor codes and family rules that govern mob life, even with all the killing and double-crossing. At Stratton Oakmont, the only moral code is to make as much money as humanly possible, no matter the deception required. Another explanation, though, is that Scorsese's audience—college-educated middle- and upper-middle-class film nerds and the like—is far more likely to know someone like Jordan Belfort than someone like Henry Hill, even if the Wall Street titan you went to college with hopefully doesn't sink yachts in the Mediterranean or sex up hookers in the office elevator. For the Scorsese viewer, banker douchebaggery hits closer to home than mobster douchebaggery. Case in point: this account of a night at the movies with Jordan Belfort's biggest admirers.
But Belfort learned his lesson, right? He went to prison and everything?
Well, sort of.
Okay, it's not so simple. He ratted out his friends in exchange for a far reduced prison sentence (during which he was cellmates with Tommy Chong, of all people!), and he's still a very wealthy man. Esquire reports that Belfort and his sidekick, Danny Porush, may have stowed some of their money away in the Bahamas, and even if that's false, he's still comfortably profiting from book proceeds and his current gig as a motivational speaker touting the lessons he took away from his fast-track to the top. In other words, he's still using his power of persuasion to con innocent adults into paying him money for something of no real value.
On the bright side, Scorsese's film is here at last to expose him as the vicious bastard he is. Or to glorify his sins beyond all reasonable comprehension. That's in the eye of the beholder, really.