I am a great admirer of both Leonardo di Caprio and Martin Scorsese, but I have to say their latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is an experience I would be quite happy to forget.
The film is the story of Jordan Belfort, one of the whole Greed-is-good, obscene-spending-is-fun generation of people who have helped to create for us this global environment where monetary power far outweighs moral considerations like humility or restraint.
What is so confusing about the film, based on Belfort’s memoir, is its lack of a moral compass. Di Caprio’s Belfort is a repulsive, megalomaniacal, coke-snorting stockbroker who struts around high on drugs and drunk on the power of money.
He bends the rules, trades dodgy stocks and basically preaches that anything goes as long as you make lots of money out of it. Even when the authorities do get him in the film, you remain unsure about who actually won. This is because Belfort’s money allows him to regenerate (much like a worm is able to).
Of course Scorsese’s film works at the level that it both depicts the Belfort story as a funny and familiar tale of our times, and gives shape and form to the excesses of an age, but it is a challenging experience to have to watch the antics of such creeps for over two hours.
The people shown in the film are absolutely repulsive. Belfort and his cronies are depicted as amoral and misogynistic; for them making money is as much of a high as spending it crazily is. In between all this, they take drugs and buy sex, and order naked or bare breasted women to do various things to them.
Actually, the misogyny the film depicts is remarkable, and it adds context to all the lawsuits that have, over the past decade, been brought by women who’d worked in the financial services industry. Those cases had revealed a shockingly sexualised and chauvinistic work culture and a truly offensive attitude towards female colleagues. And in this film you see how it is normalised and neutralised into part of this venal and arrogant work culture.
The persuasive power of money can best be seen in the character of Belfort’s father who, despite his disapproval of excess, is part of Belfort’s business and thus complicit. This is in stark contrast to the father character (played by Martin Sheen) in the other iconic Greed-is-good film, Wall Street.
Perhaps the reason why I have reacted so strongly to the film is that the despicable, rich villains don’t ever really pay for their crimes. In fact, they just pay their way out of everything. The film holds up a mirror to the corrupted, materialistic world we live in where the major yardstick has become wealth and where people (who we might think should know better) have sold their souls to Mammon.
Hopefully, the film highlights how hollow such a life can be. My fear is that it might have the opposite effect on a younger generation who may find Belfort’s confidence, defiance and clarity of purpose both exciting and inspiring rather than just feral.