Friday, January 24, 2014

ESSAY The Wolf Of Wall Street
Now Playing Forever: The Enablers, Starring You & Me

Jordan Belfort.  Tom Sanders
Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, January 24, 2014

"It is what it is", the overused saying goes.  And in "The Wolf Of Wall Street" it is all about us.  The audience in the film, and we, the audience watching it, are keys to the film.

Martin Scorsese's comedy-drama is squarely about the time we live in now and since humankind began: greed, avarice and selfishness.  No newsflash, but it's how we've got this far, or at least how we've survived.  It's how many of us get to the top.  It's always been about us, more than it has ever been about Ivan Boesky, Charles Keating, Jeffrey Skilling, Michael Milken, Kenneth Lay or Bernie Madoff, to name a few.  We -- or the media -- give these criminals colorful or colloquial names, thereby glorifying and affirming their favored or admired status in popular culture.  It's our blatant approval.  In return very few of them even get to go to country club prisons much less jail.

We love a scandal and a scammer -- so long as we're not the ones being scammed.

"Money . . . makes you a better person," insists Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in "The Wolf Of Wall Street", Mr. Scorsese's wild, orgiastic masterwork of salesmanship and con.  Each assertion made by Belfort renders him a most unreliable narrator.  Belfort, a sociopath on the order of Patrick Bateman sans murders, is as obsessed with money, drugs and sex as his iconic 1980s cousin is with business cards and killing.  Belfort is annoyed he made less than a million dollars a week in his first year as a stockbroker pushing his hard sell of weak stocks on the poor, rich and old.  Does money make you a better person?

Jordan Belfort cheats on his wives with prostitutes from across the economic spectrum.  He cheats his clients, who read The Wall Street Journal too late to realize that their stock is worthless and their thousands of dollars are in Belfort's pockets.  "I know how to spend it better," Belfort boasts.  Ill-advised purchases will ensue.  We watch and cheerlead silently or with a belly laugh.  Schadenfreude is fully engaged. 

"The Wolf Of Wall Street" is an epic cartoon reel of debauchery, sex and sin.  Its absurd romp of excess has disturbing power in one early scene.  It is the early 1990s.  An employee at Belfort's self-made firm Stratton Oakmont gets her head shaved for $10,000 on the firm's trading floor.  "SHE'S ALREADY A C-CUP BUT SHE WANTS DOUBLE-D'S!", Belfort shouts.  As the secretary's locks are shorn you may think of a Jewish woman being shaved before being marched to the gas chamber in the 1930s or '40s.  This particular woman, however, is counting her ten grand and looks as if she's experiencing an orgasm.  Everyone has a price.  What's yours?, Scorsese asks us in this consumerist culture, in this age where America no longer produces anything.  ("We don't create anything," says Matthew McConaughey's Mark Hanna, an initiator of vice city manhood to Belfort.)

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in "The Wolf Of Wall Street".  Paramount Pictures

Howlin' Wolf's classic "Smokestack Lightning" plays to haunting, hallucinogenic effect in the chaotic head-shaving scene.  Before then "Stars And Stripes Forever" has played awkwardly as a satirical overlay, accompanied by the great American pre-game entertainment: band-marching Stratton employees, followed by scores of cheerleaders, then near-naked strippers and hookers who rudely invade, hurtling through the frame from both sides on an unsettling collision course.

The whole scene, like many others, is creepy, calculated overkill.  In it women are groped, wrestling and writhing on the ground with and in the arms of male Strattonites.  It may or may not be the opposite of the Tailhook Terror, which occurred at the same time Belfort's escapades did.  The grotesque scene in "The Wolf Of Wall Street" recalls the misogyny notoriously rife on many trading floors.  I worked on one in New York City for several years at the time Mr. Belfort did.  I saw and heard too much.  One woman who traded on the floor with the six men wouldn't stand for it.  Another woman simply played along and smiled as the male banter about women and anatomy ratcheted up.  (And me?  I simply kept on working.  Enabling.) 

Howlin' Wolf's song competes with "Stars", fighting for volume supremacy on the film's soundtrack, the way Ruben Blades and Public Enemy did on beat-boxes in "Do The Right Thing".  It's a shrewd duel between Blues music and the patriotic tones of "Stars And Stripes", a very fight for the soul of sanity and reason both in the scene and the larger metaphorical American conscience.  "Oh, don't you hear me crying," Mr. Wolf croons on "Smokestack" as chaos reigns.  It's as if he's crying out in the pain an African-American Bluesman knows, crying out for morality, peace and justice as decadence cascades from the heavens like poisoned confetti.  Mr. Wolf's voice is the last voice of true patriotism, as the subverted American Dream has reasserted itself robustly as new old cultural language. 

Entrenched, Historical Roots

The deeper, more powerful subtext of the anarchy and avarice here however, is slavery, and Wall Street's prominent role in it.  This is also caught in a line in another scene where the firm's legal mind (P.J. Byrne) advises about the ethics of midget-tossing in the office: "If we don't view them as human but consider it an act...".  The allusion is irresistible both as self-justification and the perverse ways to self-entertain in a hunter's death culture Duck Dynasty environment, where no one creates anything.  The midget-tossing is a descendant of America's historical dehumanization of black people.  Whether the activity is midgets tossed for "fun" or blacks lynched from the highest tree, both have captive audiences.  Some of those audiences included small children, getting their first look at death up close.

Mr. Scorsese avoids focusing on those who lost money.  It would be too easy a let-off for Jordan Belfort and us if images of those hurt were introduced, substituting our judgment for theirs.  Such would put a filmgoing audience on auto-pilot.  Like some documentaries and investigative news stories, a reappearance of the aggrieved may serve to exploit them further.  Thankfully, Mr. Scorsese provokes us to think.  If, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jordan Belfort, a 20-something nobody, could get rich overnight by victimizing countless thousands of over $200 million, why should anyone be surprised about the manner in which J.P. Morgan, the Mellons, Rothschilds, Lehmans and Merrill Lynches of the world came to their wealth? 

The point, in part, is that "others" -- literal and figurative -- pay severely for a lifestyle that the rich lead, and it's a lifestyle often marked in blood.  The business of slavery and commoditization of black people (the original stocks) in "12 Years A Slave" can be inextricably linked to the pathologies and ill-gotten gains of the characters in "The Wolf Of Wall Street".  We sit stone-faced at one film and laugh hysterically with the other.  Yet they are two sides of the same coin.

Lynch mob, 1993: Leonardo DiCaprio and Ethan Suplee in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf Of Wall Street".  Paramount Pictures

Contradictions And Advertising

In Mr. Scorsese's film Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack" will be heard again over an orgy sequence and a Las Vegas scene where $2 million worth of damage in one weekend from an orgy and other drugged-out, drunken exploits, is paid for by Belfort, who has the audacity to later call a colleague an "irresponsible little prick".  (I couldn't help but think of Joe Pesci's Nicky Santoro in "Casino" saying to another character that he is a "degenerate" for gambling while his wife and kids are at home, while Santoro kills people while his wife and child are at home.)  The level of self-denial and loathing is deep.  Still, Mr. Scorsese isn't judging his characters.  In "The Wolf Of Wall Street" he's judging the metaphorical rich to a degree, at least in as much as depicting the craving of the material and excess that has permeated our societies and magazines from day one.

In the film Mr. Scorsese cynically showcases the Lie In Advertising and its indispensible accessories: a slick product plus a smooth, dynamic talker to send people over the edge of a cliff, cashless.  (The clients Jordan lies to over the phone rely on his voice, just like the fast-food workers in "Compliance".)  Various TV commercials are shown in "The Wolf Of Wall Street", each a lie in its own right.  One character mocks his own company ads in Hustler and Popular Mechanics.  He's smart enough not to believe his own hype or headlines.   

The commercial that opens "The Wolf Of Wall Street" is the biggest lie of all, blatantly modeled after a Dreyfus TV commercial from the early 1990s.  Later, an infomercial tantamount to the "Morrie's Wigs Don't Come Off" ad in "GoodFellas" is rudely interrupted.  Each scene in "The Wolf Of Wall Street" is almost always contradicted in midstream or by the scene directly following it, either as lampooning rebuke or cruel indictment.  The scenes are like trump cards from a stacked deck of contradictions, ironies and conundrums.

The Church Of More

As entertaining, brilliant and troubling as "The Wolf Of Wall Street" is, the entire film is a seductive con -- on us as moviegoers.  It's a three-hour commercial or trailer, wicked sales trick-as-Rorschach test.  And we've already paid our ticket to be suckered and seduced by its criminal-in-chief.  (Some more than once.)  Cue the car, the sexy woman in bed, the lingerie.  Chanel, Gucci, Armani -- those badges of identity and "status" adorning our necks, wrists, arms and feet -- the ones that say loudly "we've made it" (when in actuality the designers of those brands have) are prominently displayed during coke-filled orgies.  Marks of decadence and decay.   

In "The Wolf Of Wall Street" the material splendor is externalized and romanticized by the men but for the film's women the joy, pleasure and affirmation material and opulence bring is implicit.  When Naomi (Margot Robbie) takes off her boots in one scene the camera takes care to capture the two interlocking golden "G" for Gucci.  "Diamonds are a girl's best friend," the saying goes.  Naomi and Teresa (Belfort's first wife) may question how Jordan got his money but Naomi in particular has no question about spending it, thereby enabling her husband's crimes.  Like Jasmine in "Blue Jasmine" by looking the other way and enabling Naomi may be worse than Belfort in some respects.  "You married me," she says.  It's a revealing line.  That it wisely goes unexplained makes it more profound.  The point however, has been clearly made: Naomi is as much an opportunist as Jordan is.

The mantra of "The Wolf Of Wall Street".  Paramount Pictures

We want more.  And more is never enough.  So what do you do at that point? 

Gorge on more drugs and banal, meaningless carnival sex, the latter of which cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto shoots mostly from above, as if God himself is looking down disdainfully on this end of the world banquet.  Though many scenes are long and episodic, Mr. Scorsese doesn't linger on nudity for too long.  The sex is fleeting, not erotic, which is the point.  Some of the scenes look like the Roman Empire spinning out of control, part of human civilization way off its axis.  Nihilism Gone Wild. 

The only misogyny in "Wolf" is Mr. Belfort's, not the director's.  Belfort's book outlines this conclusively.  In it he objectifies women every which way, and to nauseating, highly offensive degrees.  While Mr. Scorsese's women often disrobe, the lead women in "Wolf" are assertive correctors and alarm bell ringers, often literally beating their inept "men" into shape.  Both Jordan and Donnie are little boys whipped in line by their wife-mothers, publicly and privately.  It's one of the few times we laugh at how lost and pathetic these men are.

As human beings we are supposed to be the stars of our own self-regulation but all-too often we are its villains.  Our weaknesses override us.  Especially when power abets and corrupts absolutely.  AIG runs wild at retreats after an $85 billion taxpayer bailout.  The SEC, which tracked Belfort for years, has scandals of its own.  The idea of financial companies, especially after 2008, asking us to trust them is now laughable.  Yet we continue to do so.  Billions and billions of dollars were stolen from people around the globe.  No one was jailed.  So why are some of us more outraged at Martin Scorsese for making "The Wolf Of Wall Street" than at the Goldman Sachses and Bernie Madoffs?  Finance is presented as dry and uninteresting while art is always a provoker of the public conscience. 

In Mr. Scorsese's film Jordan Belfort is the pied populist of capitalism, exhorting, electrifying and persuading in long speeches with primal shouts and guttural Cro-Magnon fervor.  Pure Darwinist.  The Jim Jones of your financial fate.  A televangelist of the get-rich quick with-no-consequences school.  Unlike Jimmy Swaggart he never thinks he's sinned.  Money acquisition justifies all, though the heavens fall.  Belfort penetrates his audience with the fervent appeals of a Tony Robbins to "solve your problems by becoming rich."  Belfort is a criminal and an exploiter but what does that makes those who follow him and get reeled in?  Belfort is extremely smart and knows better, but his drug-fueled self-delusions fuel his downward spiral. 

Mr. Scorsese's men want to make names for themselves.  They view themselves as inflated movie stars in their own production.  Their narration often sounds excited or awe-stricken.  Belfort is a cult leader who relishes the spotlight and power he has over people but is isolated and confined by self-inflation and gratuitous indulgence.  Jordan Belfort is Rupert Pupkin 2.0, slicker, smoother, less lonely but more successful with women (though for Belfort the sex is over far too fast.)  He's morally poorer despite his riches.  "There's no nobility in being poor.  I've been rich and I've been poor and I choose rich every time!", Belfort tells his admiring mob of employees in one impassioned speech.  But being rich has nothing to do with morality or integrity. 

Lying With The Truth

Belfort's seeming self-confidence is offset by extremely low self-esteem.  As sheer showcase act he's today's Jerry Springer of spectacle or the Maury Povich/Geraldo Rivera of public humiliation.  Belfort is yesterday's Elmer Gantry or Jack Nicholson addressing union delegates in "Hoffa".  He's Jonathan in "Carnal Knowledge" squaring up to Ann-Margret but he's met his match in Naomi and H20.  "Aren't you glad you've got a husband who's in great shape like this?", Belfort asks.  Yet he's in anything but. 

The Discreet Charm Of The Degenerates: a screenshot from "The Wolf Of Wall Street".  Paramount Pictures

Leo DiCaprio is transfixing, hilarious, mesmerizing and manipulative as Jordan Belfort.  What may make some audiences uncomfortable in "The Wolf Of Wall Street" is their love of Mr. DiCaprio, previously a boyish Titanic guy who they now see onscreen as a handsome, ruthless monster.  (There are some scenes on the high seas in "Wolf" that evoke "Titanic", though in a very different context.)  We love and identify with our movie stars no matter how rich they are.  (We're constantly told who the highest paid among them are.)  Actors lie to us all the time.  That's what they are paid to do.  They sell.  Sometimes convincingly.  And every time, we buy -- even when we don't.  In life, virtually every human interaction is a buy and a sell.

Throughout "The Wolf Of Wall Street" Jordan Belfort lies to us pathologically, and in his book, like Tony Montana he is unblinkingly honest.  Even when he lies, which is often, and to himself, he tells the truth in his own incredibly human way.  The line between the truth and the lie is incredibly thin.  One travels far faster than the other.  In our pursuit of riches and identification with movie stars we want to be lied to.  And we are.  In the movies it's commonly known as "suspension of disbelief".  We want to believe that once we become rich, everything will be all right.  We play a hopeless lotto.  We know we have no chance.

Tony Montana excoriates the rich in "Scarface" in a subversive way.  "You need people like me," he says.  Like the D.E.A. needs drug dealers.  The Tony Montana speech is the best and most honest thing about "Scarface".  Today that speech would be directed at the "Wolf" dissenters in the audience who claim the film glorifies Belfort.  Jordan Belfort could have given that speech himself -- and in a way he does in Mr. Scorsese's film when he says, "if you think I'm being materialistic, then go get a job at McDonald's."  (Those McDonald's burgers, by the way, never look as good in reality as they do in the commercials.)  Like Belfort, Montana is also drunk on his own stardom and even more so on his own lie.  The lie has power, especially when we enable it.

For every film of its kind since "Wall Street", which opened just two months after the 1987 crash - "The Corporation", "Boiler Room", "Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room", "Inside Job", "Capitalism: A Love Story" and "Margin Call" - none has shown the full-blooded id and decadence on screen like Mr. Scorsese's epic does.  The director's best film since "GoodFellas" unapologetically offers no redeeming characters and a refreshing absence of moralizing.  The assignments are left to us as an audience to do.  We are the fourth wall that Belfort gleefully and arrogantly crashes through. 

Coke Coke Chanel: The Chanel logo on one woman's wrist as cocaine flies high.  Paramount Pictures

The Audience And Attraction

Is Jordan Belfort living the "high" life in fine style or is he living out self-loathing and a self-destructive nightmare on a Groundhog Day basis?  He has cars and boats but they all end up destroyed.  Do we envy him, love him, or despise him?  The truth is we want to be like Jordan Belfort, to have the unbridled freedom to let our hair down and pull down our pants publicly without apology.  To not be accountable.  That is sexy to us, exciting, liberating, to unleash that inner beast, that deeper, base part of ourselves.  To be alive.  To breathe.  ("But I gotta admit: it turned me on," Lorraine Bracco's character says of the gun her husband hands her in "Goodfellas".) 

The notion of losing ourselves to reckless abandon is immensely appealing and powerful even as we gasp in horror at Jordan Belfort's brutality to his wife in one scene.  In his book, on which Mr. Scorsese's film is based the scene is even worse: Belfort kicks his wife in her stomach on a staircase and she tumbles down the stairs.  (Their six year-old daughter witnesses it all.) 

Film romanticizes the warped as much as the exalted, and Mr. Scorsese asks us to think about why we want to be where Belfort is, even as he hits rock bottom in a death culture.  Throughout Mr. Scorsese's film we live vicariously through Belfort and enable him to a degree by not leaving the theater.  We are sold and seduced by Belfort's speeches.  He talks directly to us when he says, "Is your landlord ready to evict you?  Good!  Then pick up the phone and start dialing!"  Mr. Scorsese has an extreme close up of Mr. DiCaprio as he says this.  "The Wolf Of Wall Street" is loopy, disjointed enough to accurately capture the frenzy, mania and delusion of Wall Street criminals, yet it is edited so well.  Three hours passes by quickly.

Jordan Belfort never grows up.  He's a Toys 'R Us kid, and he who dies with the most toys wins, even if it's winning a lifetime in Hell.  Cocaine and Quaaludes are Belfort's adult pacifiers.  In one madcap scene Belfort retrieves cocaine from what looks like his toddler daughter's red plastic container.  It's a shocking and comically ironic moment.  That he'd hide cocaine there.  It's not unlike Ms. Bracco's Karen Hill in "Goodfellas" shoving a gun down her panties as the FBI raids her house.  (The Jordan Belfort-Donnie Azoff Quaalude wrestling slog is pure Preston Sturges and Three Stooges.  Animated theater Looney Tunes might envy.)

Mr. DiCaprio is excellent in "The Wolf Of Wall Street", giving the best performance of his career.  The actor's sly charm offensive keeps us laughing with him as we feel the guilt Mr. Scorsese normally allows the characters in his films to feel.  It is our turn and we fall into the trap.  Again, for Jordan Belfort's crimes to occur there must be a captive audience.  It takes two to tango.  We are that audience.  We always have been.  Which is why the audience, a constant character in Scorsese films ("King Of Comedy", "Casino", "Raging Bull", "The Last Temptation Of Christ") is vitally important in "The Wolf Of Wall Street".  Crowds (or is that lynch mobs on trading floors?) constantly occupy the frame.  The schemes of Bernie Madoff can't exist without a captive audience willing to help them along or do its bidding, knowingly or otherwise.  Neither could the horrific true-life crimes of "Compliance" exist without the enablers in them.  We, the audience, are sometimes a criminal's greatest enablers in many respects. 

Art like "The Wolf Of Wall Street" drives that scary truth home, as does the final scene in the film, which asks: do we have the killer instinct to sell, to make money in excess or for survival's sake, and which will endure longest, the self-regulation or the excessiveness?  Will that audience in Australia be the last line of defense and overturn generations of the defect in the human condition articulated in the book "The Selfish Gene"?  That Australian audience is us.  The last scene is one of nervousness, anxiety and purposeful open-endedness.  Some in that audience fidget and feebly attempt to sell a pen, of all things, and not a human being.  How would we do selling a pen on the spot?

The audience in "The Wolf Of Wall Street".  Paramount Pictures

Looking In The Mirror

Above all else "The Wolf Of Wall Street", a shallow film on its surface, is about us, our inherent greed, the American and worldwide way of graft, and the global civilization's ongoing selfishness as self-preservation and survival mechanism.  "The Wolf Of Wall Street" in part stands for the proposition that the more money you acquire the greater the contempt and disdain you have not only for everyone but also for yourself.  Misogyny, abuse and self-destruction are amplified and naturally flow from power and the hunger for more.  "Look what I've got!  A year's salary right here!  You know what these are?  Fun coupons!"  There's self-contempt in Belfort's voice, as the FBI he's just taunted departs his lavish boat as suddenly uninvited guests, and he deals countless $100 bills into the wind at them as if they are playing cards.  He's fed up.  Money is meaningless to Belfort. 

So what in the world means anything to Jordan Belfort? 

Quick glimpses of the enabling factions around Belfort show us there's acknowledgment of moral judgment.  "Mad Max" Belfort (Rob Reiner) notes how "obscene" Jordan's life is but approves of his son's adultery.  Belfort's mother is non-existent and a silent assenter.  She barely speaks in the film, mute like Allison Janney's character in "American Beauty". 

Mr. Scorsese has always been interested in character complexity, in gangsters and turf, whether in Tammany Hall or in 1970s New York.  Now it's Wall Street.  He has mined attraction-repulsion, guilt, monetary obsession, class tension and fragile, volatile men struggling to find their manhood through violence or sex, or feeling a fear of not having any true manhood at all.  The fear in these men is wrapped in a torrent of homophobia and ambiguity. 

In "The Wolf Of Wall Street" Belfort and other men make references to "blowjobs" and "sucking people off".  Donnie insists he has no issue with gay people even as he spouts anti-gay epithets.  Strangely, the full n-word itself isn't uttered in any scene.  The absence of the word would have been unthinkable in 1993 among stockbrokers or anyone else, and even more ridiculous and unrealistic today in light of Riley Cooper in 2013 and many millions of others in 2014.

Margot Robbie as Naomi and Leo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in "The Wolf Of Wall Street".  Paramount Pictures

Believing In Headlines

In Jordan Belfort Mr. Scorsese shows us a man wedded solely to money and hedonistic largess while disengaged and anesthetized from himself.  "That's the normal world.  But who wanted to live there?", Belfort narrates.  He's been seduced to the point where his ill-gotten gains have allowed him to rationalize his corruption of the American Dream and beat it at its own mirage.  Belfort, whose motley Gang Of New York "idiots" replace pickaxes with exposed fake penises (ala Jack Nicholson in "The Departed") at parties, curses a Forbes story on him.  Later the story brings eager youngsters begging to work with him.  "There's no such thing as bad publicity," his first wife advises. 

Publicity and media are an obsession to Scorsese men, typically outsiders in America, and serve as validation of their place on the American landscape.  They seek the limelight, have contentious relationships with their own headlines or have their own TV shows (Ace Rothstein in "Casino", Pupkin in "King Of Comedy".)  They are the very romantics we are, and in that way we have an affinity to them.  They quote movies ("The Oklahoma Kid" in "GoodFellas", among others.)  Or go to them (in "Mean Streets".)  In his book Jordan Belfort mentions "The Godfather".  Scorsese's men love the movies, as do we.  These men define themselves by them.

Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff and Leo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in "The Wolf Of Wall Street".  Paramount Pictures

Tribalism And Turf

Mr. Scorsese's films often exhibit a very intense tribalism between and among its characters.  The tribalism of Jordan Belfort is clear.  He sees WASPS and Wall Street as the enemy that gangsters do in "GoodFellas", a warmer, more familial true-life film than this bright, energetic plastic fantasy brilliantly edited by Thelma Schoonmaker.  "Why don't you go down to Wall Street and catch some real crooks?", asks an arrested mobster in Mr. Scorsese's landmark 1990 film.  It's a valid point, but it only serves as a weak inoculation from the truism that two wrongs don't make a right. 

Similarly, in the best scene in "The Wolf Of Wall Street" Jordan Belfort pleads the same case, as he tells FBI Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler, great here) that if he wants to catch some criminals he should look into what Merrill Lynch is doing with credit swaps and internet stocks.  Belfort, who is Jewish, is full of self-hatred of Jewish people in his tell-all book, is arguably resentful of Wall Street as he competes so vigorously with it.  His Stratton Oakmont is located on Long Island in Lake S(ex)cess, if you will, populated by a vastly white ethnic male group of working and middle-class pups who have suddenly become millionaires. 

Jordan Belfort manipulates his employee audience.  He baits and switches on the "rathole" friends he claims to love.  We see his friends' star-struck gullibility at his own power to galvanize and convince.  We see our own gullible ways.  When Belfort says, "I ain't going nowhere!" it's an unmistakable metaphor about greed.  Greed has been here as long as we have.  It isn't disappearing.  Jordan Belfort is greed's latest incarnation, one that has trampled and reduced Gordon Gekko to a GEICO commercial.  Gordon Gekko is now selling insurance, of all things.  And his accent has changed. 

Jordan Belfort is bathed in his own mythology.  When Belfort is seated in a Swiss office the view of the huge ocean through the window behind him is also an inflated projection of his own subconscious and legend: vast, unbeatable, voracious, a superpower.  By contrast, Jean Dujardin, who plays a Swiss banker, has a small fish tank behind him.  He swims with the fishes.  There's a notable curiosity in Belfort as he cautiously walks toward the fish tank.  It's a subtle and interesting move both by the character and the filmmaker. 

The tension between American and Swiss characters in "The Wolf Of Wall Street" is noteworthy.  The Swiss are seen as neutrals in geopolitical affairs but paradoxically may be a tad resentful or envious of the influx of millions of American dollars as an invading U.S. dumping ground on their soil.  (A prosecutor will later use the queasy analogy of Reagan's U.S. invasion of the tiny country of Grenada to Jordan Belfort's predicament.  As the prosecutor hands Belfort a statement to sign, a photo of Bill Clinton hangs on the wall behind him, circa 1996, two years before he becomes an alum of the Belfort school of lies.)


Some of the finest moments in "The Wolf Of Wall Street" -- the redundancy of the film's sex, drugs and money are obviously intentional -- involve hero worship.  The Lemonheads' edition of "Mrs. Robinson" plays over a hugely triumphant, goose-bump inducing moment as Agent Denham and his FBI raids the Stratton trading floor.  We're offered an instant of satisfaction from Denham as he oversees the fruits of his labor, a counter to the auto-pilot way Belfort and capitalism has profited off the backs of others.  Denham's moment in the sun is certifiable and crucial, enough for some vindication if not a total reckoning. 

Matthew McConaughey as Mark Hanna in "The Wolf Of Wall Street".  Paramount Pictures

Heroes are huge in the American iconography.  We've loved the villain as much if not more.  We've loved them forever.  We love Jordan Belfort the way we've loved Al Capone, John Dillinger and John Gotti.  Those three however, unlike Belfort, did things to endear themselves to the poor.  Gotti was seen as a GoodFella by the public, as "one of us".  Many working-class blacks identified with him.  If these violent men were looked up to, what does it mean to be a hero today?  Walter White is worshipped.  "It feels oh so good to be bad," Bryan Cranston once said.  When we do something we know is wrong, we feel good about it.  The guilt in us wakes up later on.  Or it is drowned away in drugs, alcohol and denial.

The "Mrs. Robinson" refrain is one of yesteryear but points squarely to now.  Today a U.S. president is flagrantly disrespected.  In "The Wolf Of Wall Street" Donnie tells America where to go.  "This is what happens to subpoenas!"  (Can you imagine Chris Christie doing what Donnie ends up doing?)  Whistleblowers, or more accurately, secret spillers like Edward Snowden, are scolded as traitors while doing what some consider a public service. 

Charlie Sheen goes on drug binges, loses the women and kids in his life and gains millions of Twitter followers.  He's seen as "winning".  Antoinette Tuff's Twitter following, by comparison is still minor today, and slow to grow.  Why?  The irony is she's never viewed herself as a hero for saving hundreds of lives while at gunpoint a school last year.  (Most "ordinary people" who do heroic things don't consider themselves heroic.)  Amidst today's sensationalized media soup Agent Denham is a throwback.  A just-the facts-ma'am kind of hero, though quieter and less bombastic than Joe Friday.  Humility, like Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson, has gone from the landscape.  Hank Aaron, at least, remains.

Fame And The Captive Audience

If greed hasn't changed, fame has.  In our TMZ culture people are famous not for the good they do but the notoriety they gain.  The goody-two-shows philanthropist gets little respect.  In "King Of Comedy" Rupert Pupkin says, "a man can have anything he wants, as long as he pays a price."  (During the Wall Street Crash of 1929 some newly-minted paupers jumped out of windows to their deaths.)  Jordan Belfort pays a price but how much of one?  He blithely mentions some of the consequences of being mega rich and self-destructive, punctuated by an "anyway", as we see a quick shot of a bloody bath tub and an arm hanging out of it. 

Those realities hang at the edges of "The Wolf Of Wall Street" as markers of the truth behind the advertised lie, a truth that small-time emperors like Jordan Belfort like to keep hidden just behind the curtain.  If Belfort loves the rich life, why is he so unhappy?  Why is he destroying himself with drugs?  These days Lindsay Lohan crashes her car multiple times.  In a classic bit of celebrity entitlement Reese Witherspoon asks a police officer if he knows her name.  "I'm an American citizen.  I'm allowed to do whatever I want to do," she tells the officer.  Justin Bieber gains a spotlight with one disaster after another.  A rich kid in Texas who kills four people gets no jail time, his criminal defense named after his economic status: "affluenza".  Undoubtedly that term will soon be in Webster's.  Our society backs money and backs those who have power and riches.

Margo Robbie as Naomi in "The Wolf Of Wall Street".  Paramount Pictures

Take your pick: Fame is the new car crash.  Voyeurism is the new fame.  Fame is officially dead.  Fame has no identity.  It's a vortex of reality-TV flavor of the instant, forgotten ten minutes later or by week's end.  Fame is sensationalism and sound bites, 24/7/365.  Phil Robertson says offensive things, doesn't apologize and stays on the air.  Millions (and millions of new viewers) keep watching his show.  Money, as always, is the bottom line.  Fame only has the currency we give it.  Sports networks don't show people running on a field during a game because they know doing so will enable and encourage others.  All that's needed for bad deeds to be replicated, as "The Wolf Of Wall Street" demonstrates, is a captive audience. 

That audience could be an audience of millions or an audience of two -- namely the bodyguards treated to a view of the world between Naomi's legs in "The Wolf Of Wall Street".  Shot through a camera in the eye of a teddy bear, it is another terrific push-pull moment in Scorsese's (Belfort's and screenwriter Terence Winter's) arsenal.  Innocence, so adulterated, and in a child's room, no less.  

And the caveman-like anthem that beats infectiously and chillingly through the end credits is the primal grunt that haunts us.  Like an unruly addictive pulse its beat thumps on, deep in our veins.  And it won't stop anytime soon.  As with Howlin' Wolf's song earlier in the film, Allen Toussaint's easy-listening edition of "Cast Your Fate To The Wind" competes with Robbie Robertson's and Matthew McConaughey's blunt, guitar-riffed "Money Chant" in the end credits of "The Wolf Of Wall Street".  The push-pull, yin-yang of the music is effective throughout the film, a movie which is asymmetrical in every way.  Mr. Toussaint's sobering but optimistic piano excellence plays over the end scene then disappears early in the end credits, only to re-emerge triumphantly.

We are never fascinated by the poor.  We are fascinated by the rich.  We have contempt for them even as we want to be them.  Mr. Scorsese suggests that you wouldn't want to walk a mile in their boring, aberrant and super-dysfunctional shoes.  Or their horror-filled ones.  As "The Wolf Of Wall Street" shows, all that glitters isn't gold.  Buyer beware.  Is it the media spotlight on the rich that makes us fascinated or curious about them?  Or a need to feed ourselves?  (If you were rich would you be able to regulate yourself?  How much would you be able to resist buying things that you didn't need?)  Is it the perception that the rich have it easier than the rest, "more money, more problems" be damned?  Being rich at heart is more important than being rich in material but the society we live in places a premium on the latter. 

We enable somebodies and discard nobodies.  On YouTube one recent comment read, "The real Jordan Belfort is one impressive motherfucker."

"The Wolf Of Wall Street" opened in the U.S. and Canada on Christmas Day 2013 and was nominated for five Academy Awards last week.

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