Does ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ Condone Or Condemn Unaccountable Wall Street?

"You've got my money taped to your boobs. Technically, you do work for me."
"You've got my money taped to your boobs. Technically, you do work for me."

It’s been a week since Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, hit theatres on December 25th. It’s another crime epic, complete with the voice-overed rise and fall of a brilliant con-man (see Goodfellas, The Departed) brought down by his own addictions, fickle lady-love and less-than-dependable associates (Casino). Many see Wolf, though, Scorsese’s longest movie by seconds, as bringing the con up to a new level.

Most Scorsese crime pictures concern mobs, gangs, street crimes. The Wolf of Wall Street, however, is corporate, removed. In a big surprise, not one person gets popped. With the white collar grift, more about moving numbers around then stealing drugs, comes more intense, abstract moral questions.

Think about it as exponent equation: all Scorsese’s movies deal with dirty deeds, misogyny, racism, human imperfection. But as the criminality, recklessness, and reaches of the protagonist’s greed swell, so does the film’s own presented sinfulness.

Neil Gaiman describes the corporate America of the 80’s as “a time of monetary wealth and moral bankruptcy.” This is what The Wolf of Wall Street presents. The film explodes with misogyny, anti-heroics, sickness. Strung out on the world’s most addictive drug, it’s a bad trip, and seems to want to trigger disgust with its sheer force of evil and inequality. This film certainly wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test, but then, very few Hollywood films do. The cast is almost exclusively white, and while at least 30 women appear in the film, only one manages to keep her clothes on.

This being said, the film is also exquisitely composed, beautifully written, has compelling characters (albeit all male) and practices degrees of visual experimentation and style-sans-plot hardly ever seen in mainstream theatres. So is The Wolf of Wall Street a ‘bad’ film? Or, at least, a reprehensible one?

Leonardo DiCaprio, the film’s star, suggests the experimentalism of the film itself outweighs its moral choices. “People —no matter what their attitude is after seeing the film— should understand this is a film that’s outside the box and is very difficult to get done in this day and age; it almost never happens.” He says to Hitfix.

“I hope people understand we’re not condoning this behavior, that we’re indicting it” he continues in an interview with Variety.

Condone or condemn, we can’t judge a piece of art by the opinions it presents, or even appears to celebrate. That’s the difference between art and propaganda.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a film about a con, about selling worthless companies at big bucks, making bankruptcy look appealing to the customer. An audience member who buys into the misogyny, the absolute moral unaccountability the film presents, is just getting caught up in Jordan Belfort’s con. They’ve bought into something worthless and missed the point of the film.

“A confidence man takes your trust, takes your confidence and betrays you. And this is on all levels, whether it’s low-level street crime, a white-collar crime and even a crime in religious organizations.” says Scorsese to The Hollywood Reporter. “This is something that’s not going to go away if you don’t talk about it. Your children are not going to stay clear of it. And God forbid that your kids do! Look, it’s out there.”

Accepting the state-of-play the film sets up, or automatically believing the film condones-in-portraying in the first place is eschewing your own accoutability as an audience member. That’s what called being a sucker, allowing yourself to be conned. Like the quiet, careful Agent Patrick Denham of the film, a good spectator plays along but stays removed. Gathers evidence, makes conclusions, and does not accept bribes, even if they’re easy.

Terence Winter, the film’s screenwriter, comments: “we all wanted to tell the truest version of this story possible, not the sanitized one…. History repeats itself. We’re not learning from our mistakes.”

You’ve been conned before. Don’t let it happen twice, or, as they say, the shame’s on you.

Zach Buck

Zach Buck

Zach Buck is a writer and editor currently living in South Korea. He serves as the official editor of Spatial Studies magazine HEADREST. In 2016 he released experimental digital archive game house.xct_ with Other Families, and it can be read about on otherfamilies.ca.

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