Excessus Mentis: A Defence of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street

How manye maladyes ffolwen of excesse and of glotonyes.
Chaucer, The Pardoner’s Tale 514

Martin Scorsese’s latest offering The Wolf of Wall Street has divided audiences into two camps: those who praise the work as a masterpiece of cinematic verve, and those who say it glorifies white-collar crime along with the film’s antihero, real life penny stock criminal, Jordan Belfort. While not quite the magnum opus some call it, I think The Wolf of Wall Street is an inspired parable and cinematic opera about greed, excess, and the perversion of the American dream.

Perhaps there was a time, as Percy Shelley writes in “A Defence of Poetry,” when “poets [were] the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I say this with some unease, since my primary field of study is poetry, but today it seems that filmmakers are the cultural legislators of the Western World. Hollywood, like the stock market, is big business, netting profits in the billions every year. In many ways, Hollywood is emblematic of the American dream; certainly the cinema is a place where we exchange money to watch our dreams, fantasies, and even nightmares unfold on a big screen in a dimly lit room. Scorsese, who often challenges Hollywood sensibility, continues to be one of American cinema’s great dream makers and storytellers, gifting the world films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and The Departed (2006).

The Wolf of Wall Street continues Scorsese’s fixation with crime, identity, and machismo, as well as his Roman Catholic concerns around guilt and redemption. However, unlike Scorsese’s other gangster films there is hardly any graphic violence in Wolf, although there remains, perhaps more than any of his films, his liberal usage of profanity. It could be argued, and probably should, that Belfort’s obsession with controlling women’s bodies, as well as his betrayal of his victim’s trust, is violence. The narrative techniques and do-it-yourself rise to power in Wolf parallels Goodfellas, but instead of mob bloodshed and revenge, Scorsese focuses his lens on robber baron, capitalistic sociopath, and real life penny stock criminal/self-made multi-millionaire, Jordan Belfort.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an orgiastic, hurly-burly, dizzying cornucopia of sex, drugs, and total debauchery. It is Scorsese’s most excessive film, with a three-hour running time (even after he left an hour on the cutting floor), and so many scenes of Belfort (manically acted by DiCaprio) and Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) popping Qualuudes (a very powerful pill based drug) and having sex with prostitutes that you feel, perhaps, an additional hour of the film could have been cut. However, the excessive use of excess in the film highlights the vulgarity of Belfort’s lack of morality, as he travels far beyond the prescribed limit of acceptable capitalist criminality (in the eyes of regulators) and gets lost in the rapturous trance of the game he is playing.

Does the film glorify Belfort’s despicable swindling his clients out of millions, failing to show the effects of his actions, as one victim, Chistina McDowell, insists in an Open Letter? Or, does it sicken the viewer and take Belfort down through its use of raucous and unrelenting satire? For starters, I don’t think the film glorifies white-collar crime, just like I don’t think 12 Years a Slave glorifies slavery. Humour and satire are effective in making the audience realize just how absurd and excessive Belfort’s greed was. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was extremely risky in 1939 as it used satire to effectively depict and make fun of Hitler and dictatorships, and it was banned in many countries. Film is representation; otherwise there would not be films about the Holocaust. Great art is often confrontational, and if art is to challenge it needs to be provocative enough to start some important conversations, which Scorsese is thankful that this film did (Screen Rant). DiCaprio has called Wolf a punk rock film about the darker nature of humans. While McDowell’s point is well taken, I don’t think the film would be as punchy, effecting, or vicious if it showed the effect Belfort’s actions had on his victims. It would be Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, Wall Street. 

Unlike many of Scorsese’s films whose protagonists or antiheroes often burst into flames at the end of the film, Belfort hardly suffers for his incendiary crimes. Rather, we are reminded that Belfort is a real person: a cog in a larger system of oppression that makes his actions possible in the first place. People like Belfort often get away with, or face minimal retribution for the crimes they commit. In the end Belford informs on his own associates in order to save his own ass. Henry Hill does the same in Goodfellas, deciding to enroll in a Witness Protection Program, with real-life Hill serving four years and six months of his 10-year sentence in prison. The Wolf shows Belfort entering prison with a look of fear in his eyes, which quickly dissipates when he realizes that prison for him, with tennis courts and other luxuries, would not be that bad: “For a brief, fleeting moment, I’d forgotten I was rich and lived in America.” It should sit uncomfortably with viewers that Belfort never really gets the justice he deserves. In one of the final scenes, FBI agent Patrick Denham (played by Kyle Chandler) apprehends that his pursuit of Belfort and his organization has changed very little about how America operates.

Watching the film I was reminded of the CEOs of the big three automakers who flew in luxurious private jets to Washington to plead for a $35 billion bailout in taxpayer money, or AIG, whose executives, after receiving some 85 billion bailout dollars, headed for a week-long retreat to a luxury resort and spa. Belfort is the bastard child of a much larger malaise of greed in corporate capitalism. Some reviewers have commented that Wolf is essentially propaganda for Belfort’s motivational speaking career, but I can only assume that the individuals who would hire a man like him are already deeply lost in the sea of excess. Or, like millions of Americans, they are chasing a dream. There are those who will watch The Wolf of Wall Street and identify with Belfort. Steven Perlberg of Business Insider described watching the film near the Goldman Sachs building and reported cheers by the audience of financial workers at inappropriate moments, such as “When Belfort—a drug addict who later attempts to remain sober—rips up a couch cushion to get to his secret coke stash, there were cheers.” I’m sure there were also those who watched Christian Bale in American Psycho and wanted to be Patrick Bateman, although they hopefully didn’t cheer openly in the theatre. There will be those who admire DiCaprio’s sinister portrayal of Belfort, similar to how Michael Douglas has had hundreds of people come up to him and say, “I wanted to be like Gordon Gekko” (Greed is Not Good). Many, mostly young men full of bravado, will want to be like Belfort. Can you blame them, especially since our society often promotes men (and sometimes women) who are willing to do anything to get rich? This is hardly Scorsese’s or DiCaprio’s fault—it is simply poor viewer analysis. Think of how many different interpretations there are of Shakespeare, or the Bible? Just because some misguided and bullied kids listened to Marilyn Manson before they shot up their school, hardly means that Manson was the root cause. Such would be an evasion of the larger issues, often ignored by mainstream media.

For me, the film was a little like travelling through Dante’s fourth circle of Hell (greed/avarice) for three hours, although I do admit that I laughed a fair bit, which is sort of the point of the grotesque parody. The Wolf of Wall Street is an irreverent and potent satire about greed, excess, and the perversion of the American dream. The writing is spot on, Scorsese’s directing is inspired, providing lots of room for his actors to improvise, and DiCaprio gives the most dynamic performance of his career. Matthew McConaughey, who also gave a great performance in last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, steals a scene in the movie. Some might feel the film glorifies greed. Jordan Belfort glorifies greed. America glorifies greed. The film does not. In some disturbing ways, Belfort was simply being American. As Belfort belts out in one of his many excessive speeches in the film:

This right here is the land of opportunity. This is America. This is my home! The show goes on!

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4 thoughts on “Excessus Mentis: A Defence of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street”

  1. I agree with a lot you have to say… It was easily one of the most relevant, dangerous, and alluring Scorsese films. Not just his typical biopic or crime story. A social commentary on greed and the disturbing American Dream. After viewing and thinking about the film in length, I think the criticism falls not on Belfort as much as it is on the audience, as depicted in the last scene of the film (A symbols of us. We who glorify this type of ideology and enjoy that type of debauchery, even if just as observers). Nice insight, Paul!

  2. SAME—- – – –SAME – – – – – – SAME

    With ALLLL that’s awaiting treatment,
    with ALLL that’s undeniably unfolding
    —————CAN Scorsese find nowhere better
    to spend time than Oliver Stones’s overflowing litter box?

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