The Wolf of Wall Street: Debauched yet brilliant

Written by Laura Elliott

Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort. I say that as neither an insult nor compliment – he simply is. And thank God for that.

One of the biggest films of 2014 so far is also the most controversial, despite one of the best performances of his career by DiCaprio. Aside from the estimated 544 “fucks” that pepper the dialogue, that might be because the basic plot reads like this:

A boy from the Bronx gets his stockbroker license at L.F. Rothschild and is seduced straight away by the high-risk, high-adrenaline, cocaine and alcohol-fuelled lifestyle of humming testosterone and obscene money deals.

His first day fully qualified sees the biggest financial crash since America’s Great Depression, and the newly enamoured Belfort is plunged into joblessness, armed only with intelligence and a remarkable talent for selling the worthless to the clueless.

Pretty soon he’s set up in business selling penny stocks to tens of thousands of gullible people for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Forbes runs an article on the corruption and drug use that surrounds his new firm, Stratton Oakmont, and in no time at all young men and women who want to get rich quick are beating a path to his door.

The Wolf of Wall Street is born.

Hedonism on a grand scale

The true – but I suspect, over grandiose – story of Jordan Belfort, is a shining example of the excesses of unchecked American capitalism, with little consideration for its tastelessness in the light of 2008’s financial crash. More than anything, Martin Scorsese’s film revels in the hedonism of Belfort’s life of excess in the late 1990s, moralising nothing and teaching even less. But in reality, this hardly matters.

The Wolf of Wall Street is not a moral tale. It’s a film based on a book written by a master conman after a three-year stint in federal prison. Belfort makes no effort to excuse himself, and Scorsese’s film doesn’t seek to exonerate him. Although overly-long at three hours running time, this is a must-see for 2014 that well deserves its five Oscar nominations.



A financial jungle

From the moment Belfort’s mentor Mark Hanna, played with gleeful excess by Matthew McConaughey, begins tapping out a feral beat on his chest and humming to himself on a cocaine-high, the jungle trope weaves its way around the story.

Belfort is a man with a God complex, revered as an idol by his ever-growing cult of money-grabbing employees. His workforce behave like animals, screaming down the phones, howling obscenities at each other, popping pills like they’re candies and drinking champagne like it’s water. And that’s just during the working day.

As millions of dollars’ worth of profit is made, DiCaprio’s character takes to a stage and bellows his approval down a microphone. A marching band pounds its way around the office to a cacophony of cheers. Dollar bills swirl through the air and a legion of prostitutes enter—boobs out, bush gone, and fair game for any of the criminally rich stockbrokers grunting down the corridors after them.

Misogyny run rife

Needless to say, this isn’t a feminist film. I lost count of the amount of times these men paid for sex. Similarly, I have no idea how many boobs were flashed on screen, how many women were treated as pleasure objects, and how little feeling was given to Belfort’s wife when she caught her husband having sex with current-model and future-wife Naomi in the back of his limo.

But I have to say it again—this film is not a moral study. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It plays out as a celebration of a lifestyle that is at once repugnant and unsustainable. In one particularly repellent scene, Belfort pays a female employee $10,000 to allow her head to be shaved at the end of the working day, as the rest of the workforce screams its approval en masse.

In the centre of this orgy of depravity, the woman sits with a hauntingly forced smile on her face as locks of her hair fall to the floor, and her head is jerked back roughly by a man with an electric shaver.

But of course, that’s the point. The film seems too insane be true, but all reports I’ve heard are that it’s in-keeping with Jordan Belfort’s memoirs. Even so, as you watch, bear in mind that Mr Belfort is a fallen conman and a singularly unreliable narrator. As far as he’s concerned, in his previous life there was nothing that money couldn’t buy, and who are we to argue?



Cast highlights

Misogyny, amorality and surreality aside, every single one of the main cast members are outstanding. DiCaprio, on-screen almost constantly, takes this film on in a career-making performance. We thoroughly believe him as the amoral Belfort, and he moves effortlessly from slapstick comic to tortured drug-addict operating, against all odds, at the top of his game.

As Belfort’s business partner Donnie Azoff, Jonah Hill gives a similarly commendable performance, travelling from awkward loser to high-powered yet endearingly stupid stock broker with ease. Similarly, McConaughey may only have had a small role at the start of the film, but his tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a charismatic – and roundly insane – nihilist is equal parts hilarious and unsettling.

Finally, despite the myriad of prostitutes, models and walk-on strippers, the standout female role comes in the form of the illimitable Joanna Lumley as English Aunt Emma. Poise, decorum, a cheeky wit and a cringe-inducing kissing scene with DiCaprio combine to make her the only woman in the film who isn’t a transparently two-dimensional doll, and I thank her for it.

All in all

Despite the controversy Wolf of Wall Street has caused, I can’t bring myself to discredit it. It is nihilistic, debauched, sexist, and brilliant. The acting is superb, the comedic moments hilarious and well-timed, and the sense of unease at the end comes only from the knowledge that, after everything, Belfort is still a comparative success. In watching this film aren’t we, in fact, paying to line his pockets again?

Of course we are, yet I can’t say that I regret seeing it. And there lies the uncomfortable moral lesson pervading this film. Perhaps under the right circumstances, most of us would choose entertainment over integrity.

What do you think? Will you be seeing the Wolf of Wall Street? Have your say in the comments section below.