The sordid, sleazy, spectacular life of Jordan Belfort – as told by Martin Scorsese in The Wolf of Wall Street, an adaptation of Belfort’s two memoirs – is beggar’s belief. Founder of the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont, Belfort becomes a multi-millionaire before the age of 30. He utilises aggressive telemarketing tactics to push worthless penny stocks on ordinary Americans, then illegally manipulates the stock prices to make himself a fortune. He turns a motley crew of oily salesmen in an empty garage into a concern powerful enough to shepherd the IPOs of real, legitimate companies. He gobbles Quaaludes like M&Ms. He throws cooked lobsters at federal agents. He sinks his yacht off the coast of Italy, and nearly crashes a helicopter in his backyard. It’s all the type of stuff you wouldn’t trust if you saw it presented as a serious biopic.
Both Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter know this, which is why The Wolf of Wall Street is a gloriously dumb epic of avarice. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Belfort, and from the start he lets the audience know that he’s in on the joke too. DiCaprio-as-Belfort frequently interrupts the explanations of his scams, admitting that it’s not the stuff we actually want to hear about. How he achieved his ill-gotten gains is not nearly as interested as how he spends them, something that this three-hour bender of a film chronicles in vivid detail. Teaming up with the equally juvenile and unhinged Donny Azoff (Jonah Hill), Belfort binges on exotic sex and copious amounts of drugs. He’s a high-functioning addict, managing to keep hold of a trophy wife (Margot Robbie) and family, as well as an army of chest-beating Neanderthals.
The Wolf of Wall Street travels far afield in single-minded pursuit of self-aggrandising and darkly comic irreverence, laughing off the notion of lasting consequences. When he attracts the attention of a straight-arrow FBI agent (Kyle Chandler), Belfort’s advisers joke that he’s being targeted like a modern day Gordon Gekko, the personification of Reaganomic excess. However, the film’s Clinton-era setting is an important distinction. Not only do Stratton Oakmont’s false promises and financial sleight of hand foreshadow the subprime mortgage shenanigans of the most recent recession, they also suggest that the lesson everyone learned from the financial scandals of the 1980s is that greed truly is good, if you can get away with it for a while.
Much like Spring Breakers (2013), The Wolf of Wall Street is a movie easily misconstrued as glamorising the behavior that it should be condemning. But look past the prurient interest in the lifestyle fails of entitled douchebags and you’ll see that Scorsese views Belfort and his ilk as more of a symptom than a cause. He points the finger at a system designed to create a hundred Belforts every day – a system that encourages utter contempt for working individuals with goals and dreams, and trades the concept of noblesse oblige for the cynical exploitation of the teeming masses. That, Scorsese argues, is far more harmful than a naughty, foul-mouthed, fantastically dunderheaded movie.