Wolf Of Wall Street - Capitalism and the Human Animal

It's been years since we've seen a Scorsese film cause quite as much of a stir as Wolf Of Wall Street (WOWS). From accusations of glamorizing criminality to criticisms of the film being repetitive, misogynistic and excessive, Scorsese has clearly created a provocative piece of cinema that is leading to some contentious arguments. What seems to be disturbing most viewers is the way Scorsese invites the audience to vicariously share the thrill of Jordan Belfort's immoral debauchery.
What I hope to show in this essay is how Scorsese uses several key devices in WOWS to highlight how capitalism nurtures some of humanities more unpleasant hedonistic tendencies. I will also show how the film implicates its own audience as responsible for generating a world that excuses this type of excessive immoral behaviour.
A key part of Scorsese's strategy is never showing us the victims of Belfort's scams. This isn't a story about a criminal and his victims but rather it's a story of social aspiration and on that level Scorsese is making it clear that Belfort, his victims and we the audience are all the same. All Belfort's scams ultimately involve selling someone the idea that they could be rich. These victims never buy anything of substance but rather they are succumbing to the lure of our capitalist dream. This solipsistic perspective is important because it allows us to not only revel in the debauchery of Belfort's lifestyle by abstracting our empathetic relationship with the victims of his crimes but also it lets us consider these exaggerated excesses as the logical endpoint of our own capitalist yearnings.
With a beautifully knowing touch, Scorsese himself plays the first voice conned by Belfort on his rise to riches. Scorsese is slyly showing us that he himself is not above being seduced by this lifestyle.
It's quite difficult to evaluate Wolf Of Wall Street without considering Scorsese's earlier filmmography, after all, this isn't the first time he has been attacked for irresponsibly glamorising criminal behaviour. Many are, quite fairly, pointing towards Goodfellas as a prime reference point for WOWS both thematically and aesthetically (although tonally I would point curious viewers to Scorsese's magnificent After Hours). But rather than a spiritual sequel to that film, WOWS is more like a cynical remake that verges on intentional self-parody. Aesthetically WOWS plays like a hyperactive satire of Goodfellas told by a character who delusionally thinks of himself a quasi gangster. The film Goodfellas exists in Jordan Belfort's world and his cronies clearly see themselves as variations of those characters.
What makes WOWS so richly intriguing is the intertextual commentary it allows Scorsese to have with his earlier films. The final stretches of WOWS really drive this home and at one point the film feels like it will have exactly the same ending as Goodfellas. The criminal doesn’t pay or repent for his crimes and society only serves him a tokenistic punishment. But in WOWS Scorsese takes it one step further.
After doing the Goodfellas ending with Belfort playing tennis in the five star prison he inevitably will only be at for a short period of time, we fade to black and then hear a voice introducing Belfort as “the single baddest motherfucker I have ever met”. We fade up and see a man introducing Belfort to a sold out speaking engagement. Knowing the host is played by the real Jordan Belfort, only serves to make the scene even more jarringly discordant and Scorsese's switch to an early grade of digital video gives the moment a thorny verisimilitude. On walks Di Caprio as Belfort and he runs his “sell me a pen” spiel to an audience of eager wannabe millionaires. Scorsese quietly closes his frame in and subtly rolls out the aspect ratio and film grade back to what we're used to. We are back “in” the film world again, only to be set adrift into a sea of yearning faces looking directly at us. This audience is us and for the past 180 minutes we have been staring back at the screen with rapt attention in the same way they are viewing Belfort's 'get rich quick' seminars.
It's a remarkable moment that manages to referentially transcend his Goodfellas narrative. This is a quiet ending though and it could be easily shrugged off by more superficially engaged audiences. On my first viewing of WOWS I was entranced by the sheer energy of the film. This was cinema as its most exuberantly pornographic.
I understood how many were concerned with the way the film could be seen as glamorising an essentially immoral and illegal lifestyle. That same concern initially bothered me too. I mean, I really enjoyed watching it. It was incredibly funny, profane, absurd, kinetic – all the things I love in cinema. And yes, it didn’t overtly critique the lifestyle or show how it leads to some horrible hollow endpoint. Sure, Belfort always came across as a douchey character and I never especially liked him at any point in the film, let alone by the end where he is clearly painted to be an empty, junkie jerk. But, I also left the film thinking it would be nice to be rich. My celebrations may not take on the same details of Belforts, but the exuberance of having that much money is certainly an appealing prospect. We live in a world fundamentally governed by financial considerations so turning the film into an expressive stretch of absurdist money porn is viscerally attractive.
The biggest gut punch of the film comes near the very end when we get a flash of Kyle Chandler's federal agent. He won. He got Belfort – the rich tycoon is in jail – and where is he? Riding the subway home, like a regular schlep. Chandler hits the moment beautifully and despite his success we don't get any sense of jubilation, instead, Belfort's words from earlier haunt him and for a moment he envies the rich decadent lifestyle, just like all of us.
As the days passed and the high of the film wore off the final image of an eager audience came back to me more vividly than any other moment in the film. That audience... craving the words of a douche in the hopes of getting bags of money to live his lifestyle. The film's tenor began to shift in my memory. These moments of excess weren't just superficially amusing but rather started to look like primal pits of ugly animals copulating in shit.
My second viewing of WOWS consequently became something quite different from the first and my appreciation for what Scorsese accomplished with the film shifted dramatically. It was striking to see how unpleasantly Scorsese constructed some of the films more decadent sequences. Opening the film by showing a lion walking through the aisles of the Stratton Oakmont offices became a literal introduction to the parade of primal animalistic behaviour we were about to witness.
The film's first big office orgy set piece presents every employee in the “pit” as a hooting and hollering frat boy, except this is worse than any frat party or locker room sequence I have witnessed in cinema. Every extra seemed directed to be constantly screaming and/or fist pumping. At one point, after a strobe had kicked in as if expressing a primordial energy that has exploded and popped a uv light, two men literally fight over a naked woman, throwing the body around like cavemen. This isn’t the last time Scorsese shoots that office as if it is a pit of primal troglodyte energy.
By framing this activity – an expression of the epitome of capitalist success (and making the viewer complicit in that enjoyment) - Scorsese makes the film his most acidic commentary on humanity yet. WOWS is a sharp satirical deconstruction of that root capitalist motivator – getting rich. It is also a trenchant dig at something fundamental in all of us. A deep seeded portrayal of hedonism and the human compulsion to excess.
You may say, sure I'm being a bit more thoughtful about the film than the average viewer. Some may easily watch the film and come out seeing Belfort as a hero. It's been frequently reported that the film received cheering, hooting and hollering at a Wall St screening full of stockbrokers but I don’t think it is Scorsese's responsibility to front load his film with such an overt critique so as to not unduly influence the undiscriminating audiences that will use his film for their own purposes.
The strength of WOWS, and the reason why it is concerning so many viewers, is that it does depict a sensation that is deeply rooted in our current civilisation. Combine lots of money with our primal animalistic instincts and this is what happens. Hell, when Di Caprio compared WOWS to Caligula he wasn’t just making an off the cuff statement. While moments in the film rival any depiction of bacchanalian Roman excess, they also serve to remind us that, times may change swiftly but we certainly don't and societies that build themselves around such aspirational hierarchies will always tend to engender this type of activity at the top. Rather than even critique this observation Scorsese damningly implies this as just human animal behaviour that we all can fall pray to. Remember he was the first voice to be scammed by Belfort, and then he scammed us before ultimately turning the mirror around.
If you are worried that some may view this film “the wrong way” then good... worry! You should. Rather than simply hope more people act fairly with great amounts of money maybe we should understand the fundamental primal obsessions us humans have and reconstruct our systems so as to avoid this kind of unfair excess.
As a scathing portrait of the uncivilised animal in all of us, Scorsese has made a film that simultaneously thrills and revolts, excites and disgusts. You're allowed to enjoy the film. You're allowed to be repulsed.