The Allure of Complexity: Reflections on Scorsese’s A Wolf of Wall Street

By Adam Pearson

As a great fan of Martin Scorsese’s masterful crime films, Casino, Goodfellas, and Taxi Driver, and an equally admiring appreciator of the acting skill of Leonardo Di Caprio, The Wolf of Wall Street was a film I simply had to see.  I left the film feeling a great mixture of contradictory feelings, a confused blend of disgust, anger, sadness, exasperation, and respect for the artistic prowess with which the film is crafted.  I’d like to share a few reflections on the film; if you have not seen it, do not read on, as a few spoilers follow.

Before I say anything more, I must praise the film’s artistic merits. The acting, especially that of Leonardo Di Caprio, is absolutely excellent; indeed, the film’s many disturbing aspects would have no power whatsoever if it weren’t for Di Caprio’s fantastic dramaturgical talent.  In addition, the framing, the editing, the cutting choices, the camera angles, the the wardrobes, the colour palettes, and the soundtrack all are superb.  The casting choices all suit the characters very well and all of the actors contribute to give the film the complex blend of realism and surrealism that marks its visual tone.  The viewer is even taken into the experience of Quaaludes along with the characters through some skilful special effects. At the same time, however, most viewers will find the film contentiously disturbing in many ways which are worth remarking on, even as it is praiseworthy for its many brilliant artistic choices. I must also say at the outset that I love Scorsese’s overall approach to controversial subject matter, which is to leave the audience to make their own judgments rather than tell them what to think in a boring flourish of didactic moralism. This approach is what made his films about organized crime so poignant, interesting, and humanly relevant.  And it is a methodology that also works well for this film, albeit in a different way, which I’ll expand on later.

The very title of The Wolf of Wall Street gives the viewer a sense of what they are going to see when they go to see this film; it is significant that the title derives from the same Forbes magazine article that initially exposed Jordan Belfort as a kind of “twisted Robin Hood.” And yet, there is a disturbing edge and resonance to this Robin Hood appellation in the film. Just as the famous Forbes article attempted to expose Belfort for preying on people and instead ended up boosting his fame and propelling his crimes even further, so does this film (intentionally, and with some irony, perhaps) glorify many aspects of Belfort and increase his fame. Admittedly, Belfort is first presented as a heartless man who has no qualms about cheating the poor out of their life savings by selling them worthless “pink stocks” with promises that they will make it rich on these fugazi investments.  However, even here Scorsese does not show us the repercussions of Belfort’s scamming on the poor people that he victimizes, we gain no sense of the impact of their having been swindled out of their life savings .  Even having a single character, a single victim of his careless financial ruining given a voice and some sympathy, would have added a powerful dimension to the film. Such a character could have stood in and artistically represented the multitudes who were defrauded in this way. However, Scorsese opted to leave the real victims of Belfort relatively voiceless, which is unfortunate.

As the film proceeded, I couldn’t help feeling like The Wolf of Wall Street was playing on the “twisted Robin Hood” characterization in a somewhat disturbingly glorifying and almost admiring manner. There are important parts of the film in which we, the audience, are encouraged to admire through the narrative that Belfort was a man who empowered poor, desperate people and made them rich by cheating the already wealthy out of their money. We are drawn into the unhealthy, indeed, insane world of Wall Street extravagance and encouraged, much like many contemporary pop music videos, to admire and envy the world of luxury and wealth.  We are shown Ferraris and Gucci boots and Chanel dresses and Armani suits and encouraged to drool over them in a flood of consumeristic, materialistic envy and desire.  Perhaps somewhat ironically, however, it is significant that we, the audience, are primarily composed of the very people Belfort disdains, the poor people, many of whom work menial jobs just to scrape by. And yet we are made almost to look up to this man who looks down, hatefully and condescendingly, on us.

Scorsese’s films are always complex, however, and at the same time as we are encouraged to admire the world of luxury that Belfort inhabits, Scorsese’s film’s superlatively excessive and shallowly surface-oriented portrayal of great wealth also leaves us—at least those of us who are lower or middle class—with a simultaneous sense of disgust at all this “wealth.” The Wall Street culture of the 1980s is essentially a play of flat surfaces with nothing underlying these surfaces, and it is significant that this setting is the same setting of the novel and movie American Psycho, which also presents this same culture of luxuriance as essentially vacuous, meaningless, empty, and one-dimensional.  Our response to wealth in this film is ambivalent. On the one hand, we part of us yearns to possess Belfort’s wealth. On the other hand, however, we simultaneously feel disgust for this wealth because of how utterly empty and meaningless it is and because of the horrible things that Belfort does to secure it.  Indeed, Belfort may be wearing a gold Rolex, but his first and second wives both hate him and his own child is terrified of him.  He is devoid of any genuine feelings apart from those originating from utter selfishness and self-indulgent egotism.  It is notable that even Belfort’s wife was selected by him on the basis of her idealized sex-object status in his male-dominant gaze.  Furthermore, one could even argue that the film is utterly devoid of love of anything except greed, money, drugs, and meaningless sex. Certainly, we see a lot of ‘screwing’ in the film, but nary a single a scene of genuine love making. If you love your lower class wife, in Belfort’s eyes, your love makes you not rich in some deeper sense, but a sucker who deserves to be poor and lack all the golden toys he has purchased by scamming other poor people out of their money.

It is true that Scorsese does not encourage us to glorify or admire Belfort in any straightforward sense; he is far too complex a director to do that. Indeed, I could feel the hearts of many people in the audience sinking when Belfort slapped and punched his wife in the stomach before traumatizing and kidnapping his own daughter.  And yet, for much of the film, I looked at the faces of the people around me and saw admiration.  We were encouraged to admire a man who is a complete psychopath: everyone around him is simply an object and a pawn to be used to meet his needs.  Their own wishes are irrelevant especially when they conflict with Belfort’s desires. For instance, when Belfort’s wife Naomi’s most beloved aunt dies, he doesn’t care either about the aunt’s passing or about his wife’s feelings; his pressing concern is the state of his money stored in a Swiss bank account in her name.  Moreover, Belfort has no problem selling out all of his friends and all of the people who had come to love and depend on him simply to reduce his own sentence.  He uses charisma and the powers of charismatic persuasion, suggestion, and motivation to manipulate people as he pleases to do his bidding. Indeed, Belfort as a character in this film, has no deep care for anything apart from money, drugs, and sex. And yet Scorsese’s film reveals material wealth to be not just “luxurious and carnal,” but “also excremental, sanguinary, emetic, carnivalesque, and violent” (Richard Brody, 2014). The things that are the sole locus of meaning in Belfort’s life are empty of any real fulfillment that would put an end to Belfort’s voracious, Titan-esque greed.

In terms of tone, the film oscillates wildly.  We come to sympathize with Belfort when he is a poor man struggling to support his wife and a keep his head above water as a greenhorn on Wall Street. We are filled with amusement, laughter, and entertainment blended with disgust at the wild antics of his brokers during their bacchanalian weekly parties.  We are made to sympathize with Belfort’s first wife’s discovery of his affair, mere moments after we are caught up in the Naomi and Belfort’s wild sex and drug romp in a luxurious limo.  We are made to envy the rich characters in the film and then to hate them. We are shown the illusion of depth and the reality of surface superficiality. We paradoxically find Belfort and Naomi’s love story to be utterly devoid of love. We are made to feel sad, angry, and disgusted at the justice system that gives Belfort a mere slap on the risk / wrist before releasing him. The tone shifts rapidly from comedic to tragic. The tragedy at play in The Wolf of Wall Street is not traditional however, for Greek tragedy has led us to expect that a man filled with hubris or arrogant pride will inevitably and utterly destroy himself in a perfect expression of universal justice.  Scorsese’s film is not a Greek tragedy, however, and the tumultuous fall we expect never comes. Instead, Belfort gets off easy and we feel disgusted with ourselves for having felt admiration for a ‘wolf’ who caused so much suffering for so many innocent people. Unlike in the 19th century melodramas where crime evil goes unpunished, Belfort’s is a story in which crime and ruthless do pay. In the millions.

Furthermore, the shot that is arguably one of the most important in the movie is the lingering shot of the audience at one of Belfort’s motivational seminars, which ends the film.  This shot greatly exemplifies both the complex film of the tone and the self-reflection that Scorsese aims to view in his percipient viewers.  In this scene, which pans across the faces of the seminar’s audience members, their faces betray a strange brew of admiration, expectancy, lust for wealth, lack of imagination, and unfulfilled desire. And yet we know these people to be total suckers who were drawn like moths to Belfort’s fire (much like we, the film’s audience were drawn into the theatre by Belfort’s notoriety, to view the film). Moreover, many of the feelings we see in the eyes of Belfort’s motivational seminar audience are feelings we ourselves find arising within us as we watch the film. It is as if Scorsese’s final statement in the film is a question: look at yourselves, you audience members, are you any different or better than these people? Were you, too, not just as taken in by the wolf? Indeed, as Richard Brody, a reviewer at The New Yorker wrote in his reflection on the film,

Scorsese puts the film’s viewers face to face with themselves (…). The movie is about the drives and urges, the pleasures and the self-indulgences, the power plays and manipulations, the ingratiations and deceptions, the allegiances and the compromises and the calculations on which human society runs—about life in this fallen world.”

And yet, I found that many of my fellow audience members seem to have missed this profound call for self-examination or even to have realized that Scorsese did not seem to intend us to leave the film worshiping Belfort as his mesmerized, almost brainwashed employees do. As people left the film, I could hear them saying things like “man, Belfort’s such a badass,” “I wish I was like Belfort,” “I wish I had what he had; he’s such a boss.” It must be noted, though, that this uncritical admiration has a cultural context; many modern “men” are inexorably wrapped up in a superficial “bro culture” that sees women as mere sex objects to be used, discarded, and racked up as mere numbers of conquered ‘lays’, and luxury and wealth as worthy of reverence as the true marks of a man’s worth.  The Wolf of Wall Street, simply by the nature of it’s historical context and subject matter, contains many aspects which feed right into this misogynistic hyper-consumeristic culture. Indeed, the film portrays a world in which women are purchased as easily as drugs and essentially serve as pleasure objects for the wealthy men that buy, use, and discard them.  At one of his confessional voice-overs, Belfort even lists a hierarchy of prostitutes who get more expensive as they get more conventionally attractive, with the model-like escorts on top and the cheap “skanks” on the bottom.  The “best” women in this superficial world are presented as those who are most sexually attractive and most expensive, those most like the expensive yachts and other material toys that these men enjoy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Belfort and his cronies see women as simple sex dolls.

If Scorsese’s film leaves us with a somewhat poor taste in our mouths, albeit a very complex and fascinating one, however, this is not the side effect of a bad film; on the contrary, it is the intended effect of a very carefully-crafted work of art. As Scorsese himself said in an interview (January 6, 2014) for Deadline Hollywood:

“I didn’t want (the audience members) to be able to think problem solved, and forget about it. I wanted them to feel like they’d been slapped into recognizing that this behavior has been encouraged in this country, and that it affects business and the world, and everything down to our children and how they’re going to live, and their values in the future. It’s almost becoming like, these days in Hollywood, people misbehave, they have problems in their lives, drugs, alcohol, they go to rehab and come out again. And that means it’s okay, it’s an expected ritual you go through.’’

As I move towards a closing reaction to the film, however, I must admit that for all of the complex and often negative feelings that I felt throughout the film, it also inspired a strangely positive reaction in me. Even as I felt disgust at my culture’s meaningless and endlessly superficial of wealth and designer exuberance, I also felt a great sense of gratefulness. I felt grateful for all of the amazing and truly deep and interesting lower and middle class people I know and love, the people that make up the overwhelming majority of my friends and family.  I felt grateful for the love and deep relationships I have with the cherished people in my life, relationships which are the absolute opposite of the shallow interactions that The Wolf of Wall Street portrays. I felt grateful for the amazing women in my life who are so incredibly multidimensional in contrast to the view of women-as-mere-sex-objects that is current (and currency) in Jordan Belfort’s world. In short, I felt grateful for all the meaning, experiential richness, and emotional depth that I find in my life and in the lives of the the people around me.

In conclusion, to me, these final reflections suggest to me that we can conceive of an alternative, indeed a somewhat radical, and countercultural definition of wealth, of what it means to be rich. We can be  ‘wealthy’ or ‘rich’ not only in terms of money and expensive things, but also in terms of depth of relationships, love, meaning, and fulfilling experiences. If Jordan Belfort would laugh at this proposed view of richness, it is perhaps only because his own conception is so exclusively materialistic and because he never experienced the kind of deep relationships, love, and meaning that this definition encompasses. Indeed, I find it far more meaningful to look at people and ask to what degree are they wealthy or rich in this deeper sense. For some of the financially poorest people I know are also some of the richest in this alternative meaning of the term.  They may not have Belfort’s multi-million dollar yacht or designer clothing, but they have great intellectual and experiential depth, emotional abundance, and profound value in their own right.  These are the people I know and love, the ones I consider to be truly the ‘wealthy’ ones in this world.  And in the end, I am grateful to Scorsese for both creating a masterful work of art that encourages discussion and reflection, but also, for casting this deeper meaning of ‘richness’ into greater relief.  For even as the anger and disgust fade away, this sense of gratefulness remains, and of what value is wealth without gratefulness?

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