In Boozo Veritas #22 by Teege Braune
A Pig in Wolves’ Clothing:
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street
If you are a cinephile like myself, you may have spent three hours in the middle of Christmas at a movie theater watching Martin Scorsese’s new film The Wolf of Wall Street. Based on the “real life” memoir of criminal stock trader turned motivational speaker Jordan Belfort, Wolf has already taken its place as Scorsese’s most controversial film since The Passion of the Christ. Some reviewers and bloggers hate it. Others love it for the wrong reasons. The problem is simply this: that the billionaire Belfort spends the entire three hours of the film exploiting others to fund a lifestyle of absolute depravity and self-indulgence and never receives his comeuppance. Okay, so he loses his trophy wife and spends about thirty seconds playing tennis in a white collar prison. Shortly thereafter he’s back on his game as a highly respected sales trainer, less rich perhaps and sober, but satisfied and successful all the same.
I realize that’s a lot of spoilers for the opening paragraph of a movie review. Perhaps you’ve already read Belfort’s book of the same title on which the film is based. I read part of it and found it as tedious as Scorsese’s three hour movie would have been had it been fifteen hours long. Belfort has claimed that he was inspired to write the book by his prison cellmate Tommy Chong who purportedly found his new friend’s stories of depravity hilariously entertaining. It is certainly telling that Belfort, despite the smug posturing at regret he poses in interviews, composed the book not as a story of redemption, not as a tale of a good man’s fall from grace and road to salvation, but as a fun account of his hedonistic glory days. The movie is largely criticized for focusing solely on Belfort and failing to tell the stories of the people from whom he swindled his millions, but this isn’t a problem for me because his victims were never the inspiration for his memoir in the first place. Their stories are the stuff of drama and tragedy and this is not what The Wolf of Wall Street is. This movie is black comedy sweetening its bitter spoonful of scathing social commentary, and on that level it is unparalleled.
Few readers of contemporary American fiction will fail to draw comparisons between Belfort and Bret Easton Ellis’ millionaire Wall Street playboy Patrick Bateman.
While Ellis’ indictment of greed and excess exists in a hyperbolic parallel dimension, the central difference between Belfort and Bateman is not that the former doesn’t actually murder people. Unlike Bateman who is born into his position and exorbitant wealth, Belfort grew up in a middle-class family. Had he made some different choices, had some cards fallen another way, he may have ended up like you or me. Whereas Bateman sees his social privileges as his inherited birthright, Belfort sees them as something he has earned, and though he may have willed them by any means necessary, they are all the more his due because he took them by his own volition. Whereas Bateman sees the world split into the haves and have nots simply by chance, a fate he never bothers to question, Belfort sees the economic divide as something anyone can traverse if they merely possess the grit to do so. In a telling speech, Belfort slams his critics saying, “Do you think I’m materialistic? Fuck you! Go get a job at McDonald’s.” His unlikely success doesn’t render him sympathetic to the less fortunate; on the other hand, his achievement is his license to behave in any way he chooses.
Nevertheless, this sense of superiority shouldn’t imply that Belfort lacks generosity. On the contrary, to those he deems worthy, he gladly lets the jewels slip through his fingers, but even his charity has a sinister edge about it, for it becomes painfully obvious that Belfort is merely buying and selling friends and loyalties, allegiances he will cash in on when he needs his colleagues to lie to the feds for him and then sells the same colleagues out when the court finally has him up against the wall and pressures him for testimony. Take Kimmie Belzer, one of Belfort’s original stockbrokers who becomes fabulously wealthy working, lying, and cheating for her equally dubious boss. We come to find out Belfort gave Belzer a gift of $1200 to get her on her feet when she first joined his then-tiny organization. The two tearfully profess their love for each other two thirds of the way through the movie. Before this moment, Belzer was nothing but an extra in another man’s story. She’s only given a name when her example legitimizes Belfort’s own ego. Afterwards she’s cast back to the sidelines and doesn’t reappear again until she, along with the rest of the office, is arrested based on evidence provided by Belfort himself, but this time she isn’t lauding the praises of her former employer; instead, she rails at her arresting officer to get his hands of her Chanel suit.
The comedic aspects of Wolf are personified nowhere better than in the character Donny Azoff portrayed brilliantly by Johan Hill.
Azoff is a fictionalization of Belfort’s one time partner and get out of jail free card Danny Porush who has unsuccessfully attempted to sue Belfort for his less than flattering characterization in the book. Though Porush’s son has written an article denouncing the film and proclaiming his dad father of the year, Hill’s Azoff is an utterly depraved and demented individual, the kind of guy who marries his first cousin, pees on subpoenas, swallows an underling’s living goldfish, and openly masturbates at an office party. With his bug eyes and overbite, he lacks Belfort’s physical attractiveness and even his preternatural ability to lie. More unhinged than the protagonist for whom he makes the perfect foil, Azoff is the character Joe Pesci would have played had this movie come out twenty years ago. In one of the most disturbingly hilarious scenes in the movie Azoff and Belfort, both of them overdosing on quaaludes, get into a slurred, stumbling fight during which Azoff nearly chokes to death on a piece of ham before Belfort, who had previously attempted to strangle him with a phone cord, saves his life. Its delightfully awkward physical comedy is more reminiscent of Tim and Eric than Raging Bull, and I, knowing nothing of the film’s backstory, was completely convinced that Azoff was going to die, if not there then at some point before the end of the movie, but Azoff doesn’t die because Porush didn’t die and is still alive making a decent living for himself in the pharmaceutical business of all places. Wolf isn’t a cautionary tale. Despite having no redeemable qualities outside of his ability to entertain an audience, Azoff like Belfort always lands on his feet, that is of course until Belfort sells him to the feds to save his own skin. In the end, Azoff is punished less for his crimes than he is for trusting in Jordan Belfort, but we never see his trial nor his time in prison. The moment Belfort no longer needs him, Azoff like everyone else in the movie, simply disappears.
If this is how Jordan Belfort handles the people he’s closest to, then how does he feel about the rest of us? His memoir is the same swindling lie he used to sell over the telephone, sold now in the form of a book and a movie. He has so little regard for his audience that as soon as he starts to get into the mechanics of stock trading he interrupts himself, reminding us that we don’t understand what he’s talking about anyway, nor are we likely care as we are came to the theater to see sex and drugs, not a lesson on the financial sector. This from a man who has failed to pay back the entirety of the reparations the court has mandated, further litigation still pending.
Scorsese, at least, isn’t hiding his protagonist’s unreliability. DiCaprio’s Belfort should be suspect from the very beginning, changing the color of his ferrari from red to white “like Don Johnson’s in Miami Vice” at his own whim. If Belfort’s tales of drugs, sex, and hedonism smack you as harder to swallow than those of Raoul Duke’s, you’d be wise to listen to that nagging doubt. After all, copious amounts of drugs and alcohol tend to impair an individual’s ability to remember, and furthermore, we are talking about a person who made billions of dollars as a professional liar. Neither Martin Scorsese nor Jordan Belfort need to tell us the stories of his victims’ heartaches because those victims are us, his audience. The economic divide between us and Belfort is represented by the gap between our seat in the theater and the movie screen through which he continually breaks the fourth wall, talking disdainfully down at us as we gaze with disgust and admiration back at him. If this pisses you off, then its because he’s indicting you in his own crimes. He knows that many, if not most of us, are going to watch him behave like an orgiastic Caligula suffering only the minimalist of consequences and some part of us, whether or not we wish to acknowledge it, is going to wish we could be just like him. At the very least, any audience member sitting in the theater on Christmas day is going to consider the cost of everything they bought and received that morning and know that it doesn’t even compare to the kind of money this man makes and spends with the wink of his eye. The moment you envy Belfort, even if it is just for a moment, you are culpable in his materialism, and love it or hate it, you have justified Scorsese’s delightfully difficult masterpiece. Of course it is going to piss you off, but the cinephiles among us will also acknowledge that within that moral conundrum lies filmmaking at its very finest.
Interestingly enough, one of the harshest, albeit most misguided, critiques of The Wolf of Wall Street comes from Christina McDowell, the daughter of Tom Prousalis who isn’t portrayed in the film but worked for Belfort in his heyday and went down with the rest of the crew when his former boss’ testimony sent them all to prison. Overnight McDowell went from being the daughter of billionaire to the daughter of a penniless convict. Unlike Porush’s kids, McDowell is more than willing to condemn her father for his involvement in Belfort’s empire, but it’s Belfort and even Scorsese himself to whom she lashes out the bulk of her ire. She sees Wolf as nothing more than the glorification of a man who’s legacy was nothing but greed. While the film’s moral complexities are completely lost on her, it’s important to remember that McDowell isn’t viewing it through the same eyes as the rest of us. At the cusp of adulthood when her father went to prison, McDowell laments the same service industry job she was forced to take to make ends meet that many of us go to everyday. While she criticizes the movie for failing to focus on Belfort’s victims, her article dwells on the sorrow of her own family alone. Even as she demonizes Belfort’s hedonism, she romanticizes her debauched youth claiming, “I drove a white Range Rover in high school, snorted half of Colombia, and got any guy I ever wanted.” She plugs her own upcoming memoir and practically dares Hollywood to make it into a movie, comparing her mother to a cross between Sharon Stone and Michelle Pfeiffer and at the same time failing to mention the dozen or so movie and television appearances she has made as a semi-successful actress with her own IMDB page. Though her article is hand tailored to garner sympathy, McDowell is completely unaware that it ultimately isolates her from the normal people to whom she’s pleading her case. Her inability to understand how The Wolf of Wall Street could be anything more than a glorification of a lifestyle she spent most of her childhood taking for granted is exactly what separates her from us. If anything, Belfort understands us better than McDowell ever will because he grew up just like us. If this makes McDowell simply delusional, it paints Belfort all the more unforgivable, but Scorsese has made a career creating antiheroes, some of them fictional, others with one foot in reality, and Belfort can now take his place alongside Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta, and Henry Hill, characters we love perhaps, but men we love to hate, a position in culture and history which few, if any, would envy.
Teege Braune (episode 72, episode 75, episode 77) is a writer of literary fiction, horror, essays, and poetry. Recently he has discovered the joys of drinking responsibly. He may or may not be a werewolf.