There is, apparently, some debate about the moral sensibilities of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street. A not-insignificant number of film critics have decided that this is a celebration, rather than a critique, of the financial sector’s debauchery. The macho swaggering and posturing is approved of, as we leeringly look on nude women, mountains of drugs, and anti-social behavior of every stripe. Scorsese doesn’t reject the worldview of his subjects because he doesn’t show them suffering for their bad behavior. To these critics, his tacit approval is beyond the pale.
The Wolf of Wall Street is soaked in drugs. Its characters indulge in macho posturing. It is an unblinking look at the power that wealth grants. It is practically drowning in attractive nude women, who are (with a few exceptions) less characters than props to be manhandled, used, and tossed away.
But if one watches this film and thinks that Scorsese—a director whose films have almost never had any nudity and who has spent years critiquing macho violence, from Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to Goodfellas—has crafted it to exculpate rather than expose the behavior of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his merry band of inhuman, anti-social hooligans … well, one has rather missed the point.
Belfort is a trader on Wall Street whose first day as an actual stockbroker coincides with Black Monday, the day in 1987 that saw the stock market take its biggest hit since the Great Depression. But Belfort has learned the ropes as a junior trader in the preceding months: It doesn’t matter if you make or lose money for your clients, none of whom you actually know. All that matters is getting them to partake in trades, thus earning you a commission. More trades, greater volume, bigger paychecks: That’s the name of the game.
Out of work following the crash, Belfort takes a gig with a crew of shady penny-stock-traders. They are hawking crap to suckers, selling get-rich-quick schemes to the sort of Middle America shmucks who take their stock tips from the back pages of Hustler. A fool and his money are easily parted, and no one is better at parting suckers from their cash than Jordan Belfort.
He soon sets up shop on his own, bringing along drug-addled, bucktoothed Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a cohort of morally lax traders willing to peddle junk stocks to idiots. As they accumulate wealth, the business grows. As the business grows, more scumbags crawl out of the woodwork. Indeed, when Belfort is profiled in Forbes and given the moniker "The Wolf of Wall Street," he is panicked, believing himself to be ruined. But he needn’t have worried; after the story pops, people are beating down the door to get in.
And why shouldn’t they? At the brokerage of Stratton Oakmont, cash flows like water. They have so much money they don’t know what to do with it. So they toss dwarves at dartboards and offer cash prizes for whoever sticks the munchkin closest to the bulls eye. They hire parades of strippers and hookers to service the brokers right there in the office. They humiliate their female staffers, offering one $10,000 to shave her head right there in front of the jeering, chortling masses.
It’s worth taking a moment to discuss this scene more fully. In it, a secretary sits in a chair and is handed $10,000 in cash. As she grips it, the razor—wielded by a maniacal-looking male stockbroker—descends on her scalp. This isn’t a clean cut; tufts of hair remain. They don’t even have the decency to shave her bald. As the rest of the staff hoots and hollers, a marching band playing in the background, the camera lingers on the humiliated typist. She sits there holding the cash and fighting back tears. We are invited to wonder what she is thinking. How is she going to leave the building and walk the streets of Manhattan looking like this? As we contemplate her plight, those onscreen revel and are told not to worry—about the cash. It is, after all, going to a good cause: She said she’s getting a boob job.
Scenes such as this unfurl throughout the film’s three-hour running time. Again, I am struck by anyone who could watch the aforementioned play out and think, "Gee, Marty and Leo are really having a lot of fun with this. How can they approve of such debauchery? How can they, in good conscience, make such a movie?" Do such viewers really need their hands held? Perhaps a short video at the beginning of the film announcing to the world that director doesn’t approve of these terrible people? Should Scorsese have, I don’t know, put devil horns on Belfort?
Perhaps some critics are confused because The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the funniest films of 2013, featuring gut-busting performances from Hill and Rob Reiner (playing Belfort’s father). Maybe they think something so deeply humorous cannot also serve as a scathing indictment.
This is an oddly childish way to look at things. Did anyone think the deeply funny American Psycho was a celebration of 1980s excess? Or that Jonathan Swift thought the consumption of children was a good idea? Of course not. So it is with Wolf of Wall Street; while it’s not a satire, exactly, it is a stinging indictment of a debauched, immoral group of people and a debauched, immoral time.