Hungry Like the Wolf: Exploring the Controversy Surrounding The Wolf of Wall Street

Robert Tiemstra ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Martin Scorsese has made a career out of making films about people who, for better or worse, are NOT hero-material. From Travis Bickle to Henry Hill to Howard Hughes, his expertise seems to lend itself best to self-serving, self-deluded “gods among men.” The only film of his I can think of that has a relatively honest and reliable narrator is Hugo (and arguably Last Temptation of Christ), which is why I was initially mystified when the controversy surrounding The Wolf of Wall Street began to rear its morally convoluted head. “Scorsese movies are about more than what’s happening on screen!” I said, but thousands of internet posts later, I finally have to step back and look at the issue as objectively as I can – if only for my own sanity.
The most concrete point against The Wolf of Wall Street’s filmmakers came from Christina McDowell, daughter of one of Jordan Belfort’s contemporaries in the field of securities fraud and general douchebaggery. She had some choice words to say to Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jordan Belfort (link to the full article here). Having read this whole letter myself, I would like to point some things out which, without attempting to deny McDowell’s point, might clarify this debacle.
McDowell’s main point with this letter is a very valid one: Wall Street criminals and sociopaths like Belfort should not be glorified. Theirs is not a lifestyle to emulate, and it is their influence that is ruining this country. She claims to have a very personal connection to the events of this film, so it is completely understandable why her gut reaction is to lash out at the wrong audience for this movie.
When I walked out of the theater after seeing The Wolf of Wall Street on Christmas Day, I got the sense that this is not a film made for people who work on Wall Street. Before the film premiered, Steven Perlberg, a writer for Business Insider, detailed an advance screening he attended with Wall Street executives, finding it more disturbing than the actual film (original text here) – his main problem with the film was “[it] could have done a better job making Belfort seem like a villain.” This struck me as a curious observation, because the most disturbing element about the film comes with how Belfort’s narration trivializes the victims – we are so desensitized to violence that it’s often more disturbing for it to be left off camera, without payoff or catharsis. The handful of times Belfort mentions an employee who died horribly, or a friend who went the same way, there is no tragic death scene. He just brushes right past it with a perfunctory “whatever”, and that strikes me as a kind of villainy that puts Hannibal Lecter to shame (at least Dr. Lecter gave his victims the dignity of being supper)!
Many critics and audience members have taken issue with the fact that Scorsese did not give Belfort steep enough consequences for his behavior. To me, Belfort’s consequences are eerily reminiscent of Henry Hill’s in Goodfellas – in the end, his greatest loss was his dignity. The polarized reaction to this film from audiences (it averaged “C” on CinemaScore when it premiered) seems to give a disturbing indication of how relatively little value is placed on personal integrity to the average American.
McDowell’s issue with this film is an issue with glorification, and that is a perfectly understandable reading of it – having an unreliable narrator as your protagonist makes it very easy to attract an audience that misses the point of your movie (as Mr. Perlberg found out, much to his dismay). Through the self-aggrandizing and posturing in the role, DiCaprio highlights one of the main issues we find ourselves facing: Belfort thought of himself as a rock star, and society never stepped up to prove him wrong – hell, we allowed him to publish a damn memoir.
What disturbs me most about the accusations the filmmakers have been fielding is that scenes where the characters act so pathetically (i.e. when the “protagonists” are rendered drooling piles of limbs by Quaaludes, or when Belfort rips up his couch for a secret cocaine stash while his family life is falling apart in the next room) can be perceived as “glorification” in our current society. Any given person would love to be a rock star, but would they also want to sacrifice their dignity for the sake of being an addict? McDowell urged her readers to not support this film, because it encouraged the “celebrity” of Wall Street demons like Jordan Belfort. Are we so desensitized to our own celebrities – pop stars with their DUIs, drug problems, and general irresponsible and stupid behavior – that it has become something to aspire to? Try writing a cover letter on your next job interview: “I want to become rich and famous so I can become addicted to every drug possible, behave like an infant, and people will still love me!” and see how that goes over. In related news, yesterday, the Internet exploded over Justin Bieber’s DUI charge. The trending hashtag as I write this is #WeWillAlwaysSupportYouJustin. This is more than a little concerning.
Christina McDowell’s heart is in the right place, and her letter contains some very powerful arguments. However, she has the same objective as the film – do not support people who live like this. By supporting The Wolf of Wall Street, countless moviegoers (including yours truly) support the filmmakers who fearlessly portrayed a character that society let get away with some truly abominable crimes. By making the film as entertaining as he did, Scorsese accomplishes a double purpose – convincing the audience that this life is enticing (as there is a devil in all of us just waiting for the movies to feed) and showing us Belfort and company at their most pathetic, daring us to ask, “How did we let those self-glorified frat boys become millionaires?”
Terence Winter had the right idea in his treatment of the material – deification of money and power is something straight out of a farce. His adaptation of Belfort’s own account is one of the most searing indictments against characters like Belfort, requiring from the audience only that they do not trust the characters they are laughing at (sounds simple enough on paper, but the American movie going public is strangely fickle that way). Going back to an earlier point, the people who went into this film expecting to see Belfort’s downfall and comeuppance are exactly the right audience, because they will leave knowing something isn’t quite right with this state of things.

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  1. “Belfort thought of himself as a rock star, and society never stepped up to prove him wrong – hell, we allowed him to publish a damn memoir.” Yes – thank you!! And I can’t but help but think that this film is a further step in the direction of, if not glorification, then at the very least immortalization of Belfort. I absolutely hated this movie so I’m glad to know, according to you, that that was the proper reaction to have. 🙂

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