January 9, 2014

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“Wolf of Wall Street” eviscerates unbridled greed

MARTIN SCORSESE’S “THE WOLF OF Wall Street” is an example of how a good film can be made without having any likable characters. The men and women shown in this film are terrible people—greedy, lecherous, foul-mouthed, callous, predatory and single-minded are just a few words that can be used to describe the employees at Stratton Oakmont, the brokerage firm started by Jordan Belfort, one of the few men in the U.S ever punished for financial crimes. It is based on a real person and inspired by an autobiographical book of the same name. 

The film is graphic in its depiction of the debauchery that took place at Stratton Oakmont, focusing more on the afterhours parties and drunken celebrations than the act of defrauding the public on a massive scale. No one in the film is identifiable, at least for me, but at the same time it’s a story that is engrossing in the same way a train wreck or a car chase holds onlookers spellbound by potential tragedy. It’s ostensibly a dark comedy, and judging from the audience reaction it will be received as such. But this is very much a surface reading of the film. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is far sadder, more desperate, and more subtle than the trailer suggests. Scorsese doesn’t approve of Belfort—he simply shows the wolf as he is: a ravenous, uncompromising leader of carnivorous beasts.

Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) started his career as in the stock market during the late ’80s, working for Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), a drugged-out power broker who introduces Belfort to the stock market culture of cocaine, strippers and prostitution. Stock trading is dominated by testosterone-driven sociopaths, and Belfort immediately felt that he had found a home, despite being married with children. After taking his Series 7 exams, Belfort ends his first day as a stock broker on Black Monday, promptly losing his job. On a whim, he travels to Long Island, where he discovers a firm selling penny stocks to working-class men. He learns that there is a 50 percent commission on all stocks sold at this level and amps up his game, selling thousands of shares to plumbers at five cents a share.  A new money-making scheme is born, shamelessly creating profit in an industry full of worthless investments. As time goes on, Belfort does the same with wealthy investors and Stratton Oakmont is created. 

Belfort staffs his agency not with the highly educated individuals generally associated with the financial agency, but with two-bit hucksters and drug dealers. The looser the morals, the lower the standards, the more money Stratton Oakmont stands to make. It’s a brilliant plan that makes him and his associates very, very rich.

Of course, most of the business done Stratton Oakmont is highly illegal. Stock manipulation is only a small part of the financial crimes perpetrated by the brokerage. Not that it matters. What is so striking about the film is that despite Belfort’s bravado and obstreperousness in the face of the law, his defiance of court orders, his genuine belief that rules don’t apply to him, his punishment is so minimal. Belfort spent 36 months in prison because of his refusal to cooperate with the SEC. In the film, the character talks about how terrified he was of prison—only to remember later that he was rich. He spent his time incarcerated playing tennis. Anyone that has followed Matt Taibbi’s articles in Rolling Stone about Wall Street understands how rare it is for anyone to go to prison at all for these type of crimes. Fines and wrist-slapping are more common for the executives that have fewer principles than Belfort.  

What it comes down to is that money has no real value for two classes of people in America: the very rich and the very poor. I don’t mean in terms of fiat currency or some lofty notion of a gold standard. No, it is just that for some,  money is simply an idea, one that has very little effect on day-to-day life. For the rich, it is easily attainable and easily expanded, numbers on paper to be moved from one balance sheet to another. It’s the opposite for the poor, but no more real. Debt is just one more bill that will never be paid, one more late fee added to an incomprehensible amount of nothing. The real difference between classes is shown in the justice system, the sentencing of criminals. Stealing a car is a felony. Stealing a life is merely the byproduct of American capitalism.


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