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“He’s Smart, You’re Dumb!” The Cynical Idiocy of “The Wolf of Wall Street”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, just finished a season of coverage of director Martin Scorsese. The weekend before last, we discussed Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s a fun, broad discussion that digs into the movie in a lot of depth. However, watching the film and talking about the film got me thinking about the film’s portrayal of Jordan Belfort.

Martin Scorsese was seventy-one years old when The Wolf of Wall Street was released, and had a filmography that stretched across six decades.

As such, it is heartening that Scorsese had a film like The Wolf of Wall Street in him. The film runs three hours, but moves with an impressive and exhausting energy. Critic Robbie Collin described The Wolf of Wall Street as “a picture that would have exhausted a director half his age.” Indeed, it seems fair to say that the film exhausted quite a few of its audience. The Wolf of Wall Street was the highest-grossing movie of Scorsese’s career, but there is some evidence it was divisive with audiences – earning a controversial “C” CinemaScore.

Indeed, the film earned no shortage of outrage. Scorsese himself was reportedly accosted at a screening for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences by veterans chanting “shame on you!” The film’s portrayal of greed and excess prompted something of a moral panic. There legitimate concerns raised about where the money to fund the movie came from. There was also the reasonable observation that Scorsese had constructed The Wolf of Wall Street in such a way as to obscure the victims of Jordan Belfort.

Of course, this is something Scorsese’s films have always done, and a way in which they have consistently made the audience uncomfortable by effective immersing them in a world governed by characters who are hostile and dangerous. Taxi Driver seldom allowed itself to step outside Travis Bickle’s head, with the audience forced to confront “god’s loneliest man.” Raging Bull refused to pathologise or explain Jake LaMotta, declining to reduce his psychology to trite cause and effect. Henry Hill took centre stage in Goodfellas, but the film itself suggested he was not to be trusted.

Scorsese’s output is often framed in religious terms, and there is a strong spirituality that runs through his work. It is obviously most apparent in films like The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun or Silence, but it is a constant throw line – even where religious authority is defined by its absence, with Casino feeling like a story about what happens when man believes that God is not watching. However, Scorsese’s films also trade in doubt, challenging the audience with the fear that there may be no external arbitrator to balance the scales.

The Wolf of Wall Street offers little in the way of emotional catharsis, little by way of reassurance that people like Belfort will be punished for their crimes or that the victims will be compensated. After all, even by 2013, it was obvious that nobody actually responsible for the financial crisis would be held to account. Scorsese stated in interviews that the anger that The Wolf of Wall Street generated was part of the film’s point. “It should touch a nerve!” he insisted in interviews around the film’s release, explaining why he declined to offer a more moralistic movie.

Of course, like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and Goodfellas before it, The Wolf of Wall Street does condemn its subjects. Of course there are plenty of reports of stockbrokers on Wall Street loving the movie, just as many gangsters loved The Godfather. However, it seems highly unlikely that any reasonable person leaving The Wolf of Wall Street could feel any sympathy or warmth for Jordan Belfort, or that anybody paying attention to the film could imagine that his lifestyle would lead to anything other than disaster and betrayal, even if he avoided jail or bankruptcy.

More than that, The Wolf of Wall Street is notable for its refusal to glamourise Belfort himself. The film consistently portrays its subject as a moron defined only by his ravenous id, all impulse and no control. Indeed, some of that Scorsese spirituality shines through. Belfort often seems less than human, incapable of the reasoning, self-control and empathy that elevates a human being. Indeed, to frame the portrayal in Catholic terms, the elements that suggest the existence of a soul. The Wolf of Wall Street is about an animal more than a man.

Belfort introduces The Wolf of Wall Street to the audience in the style of the infomercials that he will later film. Notably, the music and audio playing in the background of the scene introducing his second wife Naomi is the same audio track that later guides the audience through the luxury yacht that will share her name. Belfort corrects the colour of his Ferrari – it was white, “like Don Johnson in Miami Vice” – and pretty much sets up the idea that Belfort is packaging himself for the audience at home.

This introduction is bookended with the film’s closing scene, which focuses on Belfort’s exploitation of his own narrative and celebrity to continue exploiting the gullible. In a gigantic seminar, Belfort tasks the front row with a seemingly simple mandate: “Sell me this pen.” Belfort is always selling something. Most of the time, he is selling himself and his lifestyle. The Wolf of Wall Street often feels like the sales pitch that Belfort has assembled for himself.

This is not a novel approach for Scorsese. His films are often intensely subjective. Goodfellas effectively handed Henry Hill enough celluloid to hang himself, and The Wolf of Wall Street does the same with Belfort. The film never pretends to offer an objective or unbiased view of Belfort. Instead, it suggests Belfort as he wants to be seen. The results are compelling, and a demonstration of just how divorced from reality Belfort is.

There is a sense throughout The Wolf of Wall Street that Belfort is trying to present himself in the best possible light to the perspective viewers, but lacks the empathy necessary to completely understand how to do that. As a result, the film is full of transparently and contradictory self-serving anecdotes that Belfort seems to believe will allow the audience to live with him – and, the film implies, which allow Belfort to live with himself. However, Belfort lives so far outside the human norm that even the curated “best possible” version of himself is still monstrous.

In some ways, this feels like an extension of what Henry Hill tries to do in Goodfellas. (Indeed, it’s notable that while he narrates the entire film, Hill only directly addresses the camera while on literal trial.) Hill offers a variety of justifications for his life of crime, from portraying the mob as an essential social service through to talking about how his career led some neighbourhood kids to carry his mother’s groceries for her, “out of respect.”

It’s interesting to contrast Belfort with Hill. Hill is a deeply unpleasant character, but he is at least allowed some hint of romantic fantasy. When the audience is initially asked to see Henry through the eyes of Karen, he seems like a charming figure of masculinity; it is easy to understand why a woman might be drawn to figure like that, who offered an escape from the mundane. It helps that Hill radiates a very traditional and old-fashioned machismo, a heightened masculinity that can be alluring in the right situation.

The Wolf of Wall Street very bluntly rejects even that fig leaf. The characters in The Wolf of Wall Street are not hypermasculine men like those featured in Goodfellas; they are figures of absurdity. Chester might dangle a guy off a building, but he looks absurd. Rugrat tries to hide his baldness with an unconvincing wig, more Morrie than Jimmy Conway. Donny Azoff is a figure of camp absurdity. It is perhaps notable that the only figure in the film who uses a gun (and is filmed to make it look impressive) is the straight arrow FBI Agent Patrick Denham.

Instead, the men of The Wolf of Wall Street are treated as inherently absurd. Whenever Belfort gets physical, it is more comedic than effective. Even Brad, who is introduced as the coolest of the set (Brad is “the guy [Jordan] really wanted”, and it’s notable he never really gets him) doing weights to impress the kids around him, is immediately treated as a figure of fun. He is creepy towards Zip, trying to get a pair of his sister’s underwear, and he yells at his mother through the kitchen window like a sitcom character. (“Hey, Ma, we got chicken or what? Ma!”)

Similarly, Jordan’s self-rationalisation is less convincing than that of Henry Hill. Early on, Jordan tries to present his pivot from ripping off working-class people to robbing major corporations as one that has some moral basis. “These stocks, these companies, they’re like crappy companies?” his first wife Teresa asks. “Wouldn’t you feel better if you sold that stuff to rich people who can, like, afford to lose all that money?” Of course, ripping off rich people would also be far more profitable for Belfort himself, as the film acknowledges, but the framing of it benefits Belfort.

Later on, Belfort attempts to soften the heart of Agent Denham with a sob story about how he actively helps his clients. “Take for example, I got this one kid, right?” Jordan begins. “Went to school for environmental science, something like that. He was bogged down by student loans. Turns out, his mother needed triple bypass surgery.” He insists, “But we got him into the market at the right time and chose the right stock. We gave him the right guidance. Boom! Overnight, changed his entire life. Got to put his mother into the best hospital in New York City.”

Of course, the beauty of The Wolf of Wall Street is that the film makes it immediately clear that this is not actually a story about Belfort’s selfless decency when confronted with the plight of a desperate man. Most obviously, the money didn’t actually save the client’s mother. “It didn’t work out for her, granted, she passed away, unfortunately,” Belfort concedes. “But we gave him that opportunity.You know what I’m saying?”

Second of all, it is implicitly an attempt to bribe Dunham, with the implication that with “the right guidance” the agent could make a substantial return on investment. “I’d do that for anybody, you know, anybody that needs the proper guidance,” Belfort promises. When Dunham points out that Belfort was trying to bribe him, the criminal jumps immediately to a technical defense. “According to the U.S. criminal code, there needs to be an exact dollar figure for the exchange of services,” Belfort insists.

Perhaps most tellingly, though, even in this seemingly heartfelt story about helping a young man care for his dying mother, it is clear that Belfort himself ultimately benefitted. Not just from telling the story to Dunham and presenting himself as a hero, but to “an exact dollar figure.” When Dunham hears the story, he asks, “What does an intern make in a deal like that?” Belfort responds, “Well, in that situation, in that particular trade, and it was one trade, north of half a million dollars.”

Repeatedly throughout The Wolf of Wall Street, Belfort trots out these sorts of anecdotes in order to present himself as a heroic soul who has done some good in the world. Rallying his troops later in the movie, he tells them the story of how he turned Kimmie into “the beautiful sophisticated woman that she is today: a woman that wears $3,000 Armani suits, who drives a brand-new Mercedes-Benz, a woman who spends her winters in the Bahamas and summers in the Hamptons!”

She showed up for an interview almost broke, just trying to keep her son in school. She asked for a cheque for five thousand dollars, but Belfort wrote her a cheque for four times that amount. Again, Belfort presents this as an act of selfless charity on his part. However, it is clear that Belfort was making his own investment. “I f&!king love you, Jordan,” Kimmie pledges as he tells this story. Belfort uses this to rally the troops around him, and to convince himself to stay in the business despite taking a deal that would have allowed him to retire without facing charges.

There are a couple of other notable instances of this trend. In particular, one sequence finds his friend Donnie Azoff choking on Belfort’s floor with a piece of ham caught in his throat. Belfort seems to consider letting Donnie die; he had just been on a tapped phone talking about illegal deals, and would subsequently betray Belfort by wearing a wire and ratting him out to the authorities. Belfort portrays himself as the victim in that story by trying to warn Azoff that he is wearing a wire, only for Azoff to turn him in and get him sent to prison.

This sequence is designed by Belfort to present himself as a victim; Belfort positions himself as a man who saved Azoff several times over. It was Belfort who gave Azoff his job. Belfort pulled the ham from his throat on the kitchen floor. Belfort refused to betray Azoff to the authorities, even as Azoff betrayed him. However, The Wolf of Wall Street makes it clear that Belfort is not to be taken at his word here.

The resuscitation of Azoff comes in the middle of a sequence almost immediately revealed to be largely fictionalised, and is comically juxtaposed with the cartoon logic of Popeye on the television as if to underscore the unreality of it all. More than that, even at his most selfless moment, Belfort hesitates. He considers letting Azoff die. He is only spurred to action by Naomi, who pleads with him, “Jordan, he’s a father! He’s got f&!king kids!” (Again, Belfort seems to outsource his conscience to the women in his life.)

The Wolf of Wall Street repeatedly draws attention to the extent to which Belfort controls the narrative. It does this by having him occasionally drift towards something that might suggest introspection or self-reflection, and then to pull sharply away from it. This is most obvious in the way that the story occasionally drifts towards the idea of death, and of the darkness lurking at the edge of the frame for the people caught in his orbit.

At one point, Belfort boasts about his sexual antics involving a sales assistant. As he relates how he and Azoff had sex with her in the office, he offhandedly acknowledges her marriage to Ben Jenner, a broker at the firm. “Then he got depressed and killed himself three years later,” Belfort states, with the film portraying the aftermath of Jenner’s suicide. Belfort does not allow himself a moment for introspection, pivoting sharply to another anecdote with a casual “anyway…”

It happens again when he recounts his final interactions with his old friend Brad. “Sad thing was, two years later he was dead,” Belfort states. “Massive heart attack. Thirty-five. Same age Mozart died. Not that they have a hell of a lot in common, but… Anyway, I don’t know why that came to mind.” It’s an interesting aside, one that suggests that Belfort isn’t quite as in control of the narrative as he thinks, that occasionally some outside glimmer breaks through – and his reaction is also to quickly push that darkness aside to continue his sales pitch.

There is something interesting in all of this, in that it’s interesting to wonder who Belfort is trying to convince with these little flashes of conscience. Are they cynically calculated to clumsily play on the audience’s sympathies, constructed as transparently as any of his other hustles? Or are they perhaps something more personal and profound. Are these small and unconvincing selfless gestures, which often fail to meet the bare minimum of human decency, reflective of his self-rationalisation, an attempt to convince himself that he is a decent human being?

This explains why The Wolf of Wall Street makes so little room for Belfort’s victims. After all, this is his story. Belfort would no sooner acknowledge the lives that he destroyed than confront the mortality of Brad or Ben. There is some acknowledgement of Belfort’s victims in the movie, albeit not in spaces where they think of themselves as victims. They are heard on phone calls talking about how they are going to celebrate a deal by having a beer. They are seen in advertisements insisting that those who don’t listen to Belfort are “lazy” and “should get a job at McDonalds.”

This is the key to Belford’s philosophy. Nobody sees themselves as victims, even as they line up to attend seminars that enrich Belford. Belford lures in his victims by constructing the base narrative of capitalism: that they can get rich quick if they just want it badly enough. Of course, this runs the risk of sounding like victim blaming, but it instead suggests a broader social complicity. Jordan isn’t necessarily inventing anything. He is just exploiting the fundamental American myth and the greed of those around him.

Again, this perhaps positions Belfort as something of a reflection of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull or Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Bot of these characters seemed to be manifestations of something wider in the consciousness, rather than entirely unique creations. Bickle was a taxi driver who seemed to collect all the anger and hatred and violence that permeated the city of the era, while carrying the lingering trauma of Vietnam. Similarly, LaMotta existed in a violent world, but he was simply unable to elevated himself above it.

Belfort is arguably a figure inexorably tied to a certain facet of the American identity, and coming to embody a certain core set of ideals. This is not to suggest that Belfort was a product of this environment or that he was not culpable for his actions. Instead, the relationship seems closer to symbiosis. Belfort landed in the right place at the right time to feed on the greed in the wider culture. Belfort’s greed is just stronger.

After all, one of the big recurring tensions within The Wolf of Wall Street is the question of just how skilled Belfort is at what he does. Belfort is a con man and a hustler, and he accrues a sizable fortune by convincing other people to let him handle their money. However, the film repeatedly and consciously suggests that Belfort is not exceptionally smart or shrewd or wise. He is not a genius or an artist. He is just pure greed.

This is most obvious in his interactions with Agent Denham. Belfort’s private investigator explicitly states as much, “I told you, whatever the f&!k you say to him, he’s gonna use against you. Don’t you understand? He’s smart, you’re dumb.” Even outside of the fact that Belfort clumsily and repeatedly incriminates himself, he also comes across as something of a moron. When Belfort offers Agent Denham a drink on his yacht, Denham explains, “You know what? The Bureau doesn’t allow us to drink while we’re at sea.” Belfort replies, “Duh! Of course.”

This lack of intelligence is a recurring motif. During his seduction of Naomi, he struggles to find a way into her apartment. “Come on, Jordan, think of a way to get up to her apartment,” he urges himself, as the two sit in awkward silence – Naomi clearly waiting for Belfort to make a move. Later on, Belfort is so disoriented and out of his mind that he tries to sleep with Naomi’s Aunt Emma, unable to understand even academically that politeness (and some small degree of empathy) can exist outside carnal impulses.

This portrayal of Belfort is interesting, as it arguably subverts and eschews the conventional logic of con man stories and the myth of exceptionalism. Many stories about hustlers and con men offer on a sort of Darwinian logic, insisting that those who come out on top triumph by ingenuity or wit. Often that intelligence is paired with ruthlessness and selfishness, but these sorts of greedy figures are often portrayed as shrewd and canny – figures like Mister Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life or Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.

In contrast, The Wolf of Wall Street rejects such Darwinian subtext. Belfort is not especially smart or sophisticated or clever. Indeed, The Wolf of Wall Street perhaps pioneered an approach to the portrayal of the wealthy elite on screen after the Great Recession, one that rejected traditional narratives of intelligence for more chaotic and incompetent depictions of the upper class in films like Knives Out, Ready or Not, Parasite and others. Belfort isn’t rich because he is better or because he is smarter. He is rich because he is shameless and because he lacks restraint or moral dignity.

Much like Raging Bull, The Wolf of Wall Street refused to pathologise Belfort. “Most of the Wall Street jackasses that I bust, they’re to the manor born,” explains Agent Denham, handily eschewing a convenient Freudian narrative for Belfort’s greed and lust. “Their fathers are douchebags, just like their fathers before them. But you… you, Jordan, you got this way all on your own. Good for you, little man.” Indeed, it is no small irony that Belfort’s father is one of the most moral characters in the film, literally warning his son, “One of these days, the chickens are gonna come home to roost.”

The film refuses to offer something equivalent to a traditional origin story for Belfort. In his earliest appearance chronologically, Belfort steps off a bus on to Wall Street. He is not fully formed, but his core self is largely already defined. “I always wanted to be rich,” he narrates. “So let me go back. I’m twenty-two years old, newly married, and already a money-crazed little sh!t. So what do I do? I go to the one place on Earth that befit my high-minded ambitions.” That is it. That is all that The Wolf of Wall Street offers by way of explanation of Belfort’s psychology.

Instead, the movie’s early segments fixate on Belfort learning how to indulge the part of himself that already existed, rather than actually changing as a person. His big revelation in working with Mark Hanna is that Beflort doesn’t even need to wear a mask to hide his ambitions. He doesn’t even have to cloak his greed in half-hearted platitudes like “if you make your clients money at the same time, it’s advantageous to everyone.” Belfort does not create the monster inside himself, he just learns to feed it.

This is the irony of The Wolf of Wall Street. As Hanna explains, the stock market is entirely abstract to the point of being almost imaginary. “We don’t create sh!t,” Hanna tells Belfort by way of explaining their trade. “We don’t build anything.” As such, the product is immaterial and has no corresponding value. Hanna describes it as “fairydust.” Repeatedly throughout the film, Belfort makes vague allusions to the mechanisms at play before suggesting the mechanics don’t matter. The bottom line was that they “were making more money than [they] knew what to do with.”

Hanna summarises the work that they do as “all day long, decimal points, high frequencies” which is “very acidic above-the-shoulders mustard sh!t.” This idea of abstraction is interesting, and frequently contrasted with the more visceral and material aspects of the film – the way in which Scorsese emphasises the hedonism at play, often with slow motion shots or intense close-ups during drug sequences that give a sense of texture to the world. Belfort describes money as a drug, and the film treats it as such. However, it is also clear that money is God.

The abstraction of the industry is contrasted with the base nature of the people who inhabit it. The Wolf of Wall Street is populated with animal imagery. “The world of investing can be a jungle,” promises the opening advertisement for Stratton Oakmont. “Bulls. Bears.” Belfort takes the nickname of “wolf” for himself, while Stratton Oakmont takes the lion as its mascot. At one point, his father chides him, “What is this? Ramar of the Jungle, for Christ sake?” When Belfort reneges on his deal to step aside, Denham receives a phone call, “He is back in the ocean. Happy hunting.”

Indeed, The Wolf of Wall Street even employs animals at several points as if to underscore this. When Azoff spots a young broker cleaning his goldfish bowl before a stock launch, Azoff proceeds to humiliate the young man by eating his goldfish in front of the office. At another point, Belfort walks around the floor carrying a chimpanzee on roller-skates. Of course, this is without getting into the less obviously animal-like behaviour, from the frenzy on the stock floor to Belfort’s indulgence of his carnal impulses to Toby Welch smashing a baseball bat in a display of strength.

This perhaps explains why so much of The Wolf of Wall Street is fascinated with the idea of power, in particular who holds power in a particular scene. Indeed, The Wolf of Wall Street makes a point to have Belfort assert power over others in dangerous and reckless situations – notably with the helicopter pilot in the open scenes and with “Captain Ted” on the yacht. Logic dictates that the most qualified person should be in charge, but Belfort clearly holds enough power to assert his authority.

This power dynamic is apparent in the relationship between Belfort and Naomi. In their early arguments, Belfort seems to hold power over Naomi – notably by streaming footage of her exposing herself to the security guards outside. Money is just one way of asserting power. In their final scene together, Naomi wields her own power over Belfort in a particularly uncomfortabl sex scene, using her sexuality to humiliate and embarrass him. There’s something very primal and very bestial in the dynamics at play in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Indeed, this is perhaps why what little room The Wolf of Wall Street makes for Belfort’s victims is treated in the way that it is: as a power dynamic. Belfort’s swindling of clients over the phone is treated as a spectator sport at several points in the movie. In one memorable sequence, he even pantomimes the seduction as a sexual act. In the language of The Wolf of Wall Street, this is an act of dominance. It is the strong preying on the weak. Belfort just spends so much of the movie acting like an apex predator, and so he thrives in an evironment that rewards this.

Indeed, it’s notable that Belfort’s true descent begins when other characters demonstrate an ability to assert control over him. Early in the film, he is able to turn the flight to his bachelor party into a grotesque orgy in the sky. Later on, when he proves unable to restrain himself on another flight, he is forcibly restrained using a number of seat belts. Belfort only understands power, and so The Wolf of Wall Street operates by a very brutal and very primitive logic – something below reason or logic or thought.

The Wolf of Wall Street repeatedly suggests that there is something fundamentally missing from Belfort, some spark of humanity that is defined entirely by its absence. It is customary to consider The Wolf of Wall Street in the context of Scorsese’s other films about masculinity and greed, like Goodfellas and Casino. This makes sense, and there is certainly a lot of thematic and narrative overlap. However, The Wolf of Wall Street occasionally feels like a much more spiritual film.

It is a meditation on the human soul, and what it must be like to live entirely without one.

2 Responses

  1. Great post, Darren! There are some really great insights here on what I think is an underrated masterpiece

  2. Excellent analysis. Best one I’ve encountered on the web!

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