What exactly is it about the Holiday season that reminds people of crooked scam artists and arch criminals? First we had "American Hustle", now we have "The Wolf of Wall Street". I'm expecting Santa to come down the chimney and shake me down for protection money. I guess the only people who are going to see a movie on Christmas day are cynical, lonely assholes anyway, so who cares if we drop a few Hard-R bombs right on top of our holiday manger? 500 uses of the word "fuck" means that this is definitely a movie you will not want to bring your newly-born Savior to, but "Frozen" is still playing, and I know Jesus will love that.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" is one part the conclusion of director Martin Scorsese's twenty year journey of crime epics, beginning with "Goodfellas" and continuing with "Casino" and "The Departed", and one part the crescendo of a recurring trend in 2013 films, the dark soul hidden within the American Dream. We've seen it before with "Spring Breakers" where the nihilism of the party scene was laid bare as pure self-destruction, and again with far less talent and nuance with Michael Bay's Worst Movie of 2013, "Pain & Gain", then once more with a Sofia Coppola film which I never quite got around to seeing called "The Bling Ring". Those movies however, cannot even hope to reach the levels of excess and depravity that is "The Wolf of Wall Street", a biting movie that stars not misfits or young people on the fringes of American society, but the very Masters of the Universe*, who created this obsession with wealth, fame, and watching the world burn beneath your glorious feet.
Wall Street is merely crass materialism of modern society writ large. It is a machine that exists outside of morals, humanity, civilization, God, and reason, it does only one thing: generate money for those who know how to play the game. I won't go as far as to say it steals money away from the rest of the world, as the complex world of more abstract capitalism, such as stocks, credit, investment, and bonds, is a necessary organ for modern industry and society to function. The wolf within "The Wolf of Wall Street", played by Leonardo DiCaprio in now his fifth protagonist role under Martin Scorsese, is not creating anything. This creature, named Jordan Belfort, is less a wolf, and more of a parasite, exploiting the complexities of the market, the dreams of gullible people to make money, and the shroud of invincible wealth and power itself to run a lifestyle of unending obscenity. His crimes are no less terrible and severe than those of the gangsters of previous Scorsese productions. The only difference is that Belfort is upper class, and can hide behind illusions of propriety and the myth that his hard work and talent earned him his money. He doesn't need to use a gun to steal, he has a spread sheet and some phony inflated stocks, which are far more effective and socially-acceptable methods.
There is a point in "The Wolf of Wall Street" where Jordan Belfort in one of his gleeful monologues addressing the audience, starts to explain his latest and greatest scam. Then he suddenly turns away and says "you don't really understand this stuff, do you? And do you really care?", at which point the movie continues onward in its merry frantic energy, leaving the audience just as ignorant of the swindle as Belfort's investors. Scorsese here might have been satirizing our own willful ignorance of the machinations at the higher levels of the financial industry that rule our lives - just how many of us actually know why the world has been in a recession for the past five years?** Last year JP Morgan Chase lost two billion dollars in an incredibly stupid "London Whale" credit default swap action, which only shows how utterly Wild West is the financial market is. Nobody is running the show, its all running wild, even banks whose only purpose in existence is to make tons of money can throw away insane sums like they're sixteen-year-old throwing cash at a stripper. The power of these guys, both the legit and the criminal, is that they've built a universe for themselves that they alone know how to understand. You need a degree in economics just to even try to play at this level, and even then, somebody can Jordan Belfort can put together a show wild enough and crazy enough that you'll probably drop your pants just to give yourself the privilege to get fucked by a master of this magnitude.
But still, I feel like Scorsese in not explaining the fraud to the audience - and it isn't even the world's most clever bit of financial wizardry - is only perpetuating the gulf between Wall Street and the real world. Most people simply don't really know what the stock market actually is, and probably don't care. And that's why we're so defenseless against the chicanery of men in nice suits. So I'll do what Scorsese didn't: Jordan Belfort's entire empire was a chop shop, a Boiler Room, a place where shitty stocks are secretly earned by the firm and then forcibly sold to foolish marks who thought Belfort's Stratton Oakmont company was a real investment firm. In fact it inspired the 2000 movie called "The Boiler Room". When the shitty stocks become inflated by the demand from real clients, Belfort and his cronies would dump the future, and run away with the cash, while honest investors and hard-working people were left holding worthless sheets of paper. The main stock that's highlighted in this movie, and the most infamous case of Jordan Belfort's villainy, comes in the case of Steve Madden, an extremely popular shoe line, whose initial existence was just another bullshit puppeteering act put together by Jordan Belfort - Steve Madden, the designer went to jail in the early 2000s for his part in these crimes. Its called "pump and dump", and actually the oldest financial scam in the book***, coming just before Ponzi Schemes.
So maybe I'm slightly offended that Scorsese decided to save me the details. I'm probably alone in that, just as I'm alone in bringing alone a copy of Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon" to the theater.
The actual focus of the movie isn't so much in the machinery of Wall Street or the details of the theft, but rather a never-ending circus of drugs, tits, and money that made up Jordan Belfort's life. He goes from a naive low-level broker who foolishly thinks he can make people money, who then decides that between working as a stock boy (a Hell like no other, I can assure you) and being the biggest con artist with the biggest dick, he'll take the biggest dick option. He collects the worst scum he can find in his local neighborhood, mostly drug dealers and Jonah Hill, who is pleasantly plump once again, then builds a financial empire built on the misery of millions, within which he can fit hookers, midget lawn darts, and quaaludes, lots and lots of quaaludes.
My primary complaint for "The Wolf of Wall Street" is how ultimately lost the film and the filmmaker seems to get in the psychedelic circus that Jordan Belfort lives in for years. For a good hour stretch of the movie, there is very little plot development, just one example after another of how much more insane and over the top Belfort can make his enterprise. Essentially the entire company becomes one giant banner right at the FBI's door "look at us, we're obviously out of control and stealing everything that's not nailed down!" Prostitutes flood airplanes, Leonardo DiCaprio proves himself very adept at physical comedy as he wriggles his way home while in the midst of quaalude paralysis, destroying a beautiful Lamborghini in the process, and there's even a homosexual orgy in a high rise. I came into "The Wolf of Wall Street" expecting a very hilarious drama, much like "Goodfellas", but instead once DiCaprio and Hill were wrapping a blonde Slovenian girl in millions of dollars and electrical tape in order to smuggle into a Swiss bank, its obvious this is a comedy with just some dramatic elements. In an early and stunningly brilliant cameo, Matthew McConaughey promises that eventually DiCaprio's character will start to masturbate while thinking of money. And it looks like he did.
Perhaps this is all a commentary on Jordan Belfort's own life, which was clearly a charging train wreck smashing its way through the New York skyline. This was a man so badly out of control, but who convinced himself that he was a magnificent God only nine steps ahead of everybody else. The egotism infects the rest of the movie, where Belfort's two wives are entirely ignored by the screenwriting. Margot Robbie is so insanely pretty that my powers of critical analysis completely fail me - I think I am honestly in love with this actress - but her role as Madam Belfort has only a fraction of the complexity and humanity of Sharon Stone's Ginger Rothstein or Lorraine Bracco's Karen Hill. DiCaprio might literally worship at the alter of her pussy, but he's far too interested in the next big score, financial or barbiturate. The party seems to continue endlessly to the point that even the comedy ceases to be funny, which may be a metaphor on the emptiness of constant consumption, or maybe Scorsese just fell too badly in love with the life of a swindler emperor. There is a cut of this movie that lasts four hours, when the current three hour cut itself is too long.
Interestingly, the movie never really bothers to give Jordan Belfort the final payment that he ultimately deserves. His downfalls comes thanks to a completely random coincidence, and his final sentence is only a few years in a minimum security prison where he plays tennis ("I forgot for a second that I was rich")****. There's already some controversy that Scorsese is actually condoning this lifestyle, that "The Wolf of Wall Street" will become a stock broker's fantasy just as "Wall Street" has rather ironically become. But really, didactic morality plays aren't really what the world needs when it comes to the real problems of our nation's financial system. Honestly, I'm not sure if we need "The Wolf of Wall Street" either. But then again, why are we looking to movies to save our nation's soul? Aren't there politicians or something whose jobs that is?
Oh yeah, right. I forgot what kind of Congress we have these days. Maybe we do need Scorsese after all.
To conclude, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is yet another monumental accomplishment made by a man who is probably the greatest director of our time. Scorsese invented this kind of grand criminal epic, and to this day, people are still trying to copy his formula. And amazingly for his age, he is blowing away the competition. In terms of movie making, every element is as solid as it gets. The acting is spot-on, the pacing is fluid, heck, Scorsese was nice enough to give Rob Reiner a role, since we know that guy's never going to direct again. This is a movie simply done really really well. Its almost as if Scorsese had to come along to people like Michael Bay, who foolishly tried to follow him in his footsteps, and smash down that child's face. "THIS IS HOW ITS DONE! This is how you create a movie with viscous monstrous people and make it exciting, charming, and brilliant." Even me, who is probably more reviled than most by the culture of Wall Street, was more than a little enamored with the wonderfully excess shown here, even when I know this is supposed to be a proper tragedy. Its ultimately going to be a tough call between this and "American Hustle", for my Best-Of list next week.
* Scorsese makes this very same reference to "Bonfires of the Vanities", the original exploration of the supreme ego of Wall Street, only there, the Master of the Universe discovers he is anything but, and his stock market surging world is just a bubble within a larger society full of crooks far more talented than he. I should throw that book into a Literature post one day, come to think of it.
** Nobody really knows, as far as I can tell. The immediate causes of the market collapses and the falls of major investment banks such as Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns is an overinflated focus in the US housing market, where shitty loans were given out with horribly crooked hidden costs to the buyers, which caused millions to simply default. The banks were taking in billions of dollars without regulation to give loans to "subprime" clients, people who may have trouble paying back the money over the years, though only giving this money with the condition that the loans would have adjustable rates for repayment, which would mean the banks could gouge their clients out. And the system is so complex that all this debt was considered in of itself an exchangeable asset whose future worth can be speculated upon, which meant that the banks created a huge shadow bubble based on basically nothing which was in turn sitting on top of another bubble based on the physical worth of houses and the ability of people to pay back these loans. Well, the housing bubble crashed, lots of people found themselves with houses worth less than their loans, which meant the speculation bubble crashed, and the entire world lost trillions. If you want a movie about that, visit the 2011 star-studded drama "Margin Call", which is much smaller than "The Wolf of Wall Street", but somehow a thousand times more disturbing.
Of course, the questions I have is 1) why is it that apparently millions of Americans can no longer afford homes and thus must be sucked into a usury scheme, and 2) why does the economy still suck, years after this crisis ended? And you could ask 100 economists those questions and I bet you any number of money (just please don't speculate on the futures of your current gambling funds) that they'll all give you 100 different answers. I'm guessing its because our entire economic system has been badly inflated for decades, and now suddenly reality is beginning to sink in that we're all much poorer than we thought. Except, of course, for Wall Street folks, who have been riding a government life support infusion of billions of dollars for years now, and have been living lives of obscene luxury and pleasure while some of us cannot imagine ever moving out of their parents' house.
...sorry, make that apartment, my family lost its house last year.
*** In the early 1700s England, a company called the "South Sea Company" was created, which would become one of the largest and most incredible cases of financial fraud in history. This company was designed to be similar to the East India Company, a major trading power with interests around the globe, this one focused on Spanish South America. The British were at war with Spain at the time (as the 1700s were a time where everybody was at war with everybody else basically constantly), and in the latest treaty they had extracted some trading concessions. The South Sea Company was supposed to manage the supposedly "unlimited" riches of Argentina, which had been and would be for centuries, an obsession of the British to one day conquer. Of course, the reality was that the South Sea Company could only send a single ship, and the British were no closer to ruling Argentina than they were to ruling Madrid. The South Sea Company's real puppeteers were smart enough to bribe members of Parliament to make sure they would have an easy escape in case things went bad, as they did. Assets were massively inflated, salesmen wandered the streets of London promising poor ignorant citizens a fortune could be made by buying shares of South Sea stock, pumping up the price of the stock, and then dumping it.
Guess what? It all blew up massively, the South Sea Company was raided, its assets taken by the cro. wn, and thousands of people lost everything. Nothing has changed between 2014 and 1720.
**** Today thanks to the massive overcrowding of the American prison system, "country club" prisons as depicted in this movie are entirely mythological. You're going to do hard time, no matter who you know on Wall Street. If you have the bad luck of going to jail in the State of California, you'll get to experience a Third World-esque nightmare. But I suppose we all really want to see how the top 1% get their kicks, not how the lowest members of our society are treated