In Defense of The Wolf of Wall Street: Why Jordan Belfort’s Lifestyle Needed to be Glamorized
The Wolf of Wall Street is the most misunderstood movie of 2013. Some critics and audiences love the film, to be sure, but those who don’t love it loathe it with a passion. This isn’t anything new, as there are always debates about a film’s quality, but the criticism of The Wolf of Wall Street has less to do with whether or not the film is “good” and more to do with whether or not it is “ethical.”
Detractors are disgusted that director Martin Scorsese, screenwriter Terence Winter, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio have glamorized Jordan Belfort‘s lifestyle (Belfort is a real-life stockbroker who was convicted of fraud crimes in 1998). For example, one of Belfort’s victims claims that The Wolf of Wall Street is problematic because Belfort’s lifestyle isn’t overtly condemned, as indicated by this “Open Letter to the Makers Of The Wolf of Wall Street, And To The Wolf Himself.” In opposition to this claim, Glenn Kenny argues that Belfort’s lifestyle is condemned by the filmmakers, thereby suggesting that the detractors are misreading the film.
This back-and forth suggests that The Wolf of Wall Street can only be admired and appreciated if the filmmakers make an effort to denounce Belfort’s lifestyle. Even those who support the film, like Kenny, insist that Scorsese is critical of Belfort. The general view, ultimately, is that the film is trash if it glamorizes the Wall Street lifestyle. These interpretations are misguided, however, and now is a propitious time to intervene and defend The Wolf of Wall Street for what it truly is. The film indeed glamorizes Belfort’s lifestyle, but the filmmakers needed to do this in order to make a pertinent point about American culture. The Wolf of Wall Street is therefore powerful and provocative precisely because the filmmakers don’t sugarcoat harsh truths that have plagued American culture for decades.
The Wolf of Wall Street tackles traditional conceptions of the American dream. As defined by James Truslow Adams in 1939, the American dream refers to “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” As a concept and an ideal, the American dream is amorphous; it is appropriate to assume that there isn’t just one American dream, and that each individual has cultivated his or her own version of the dream. However, a recent poll conducted by Sandra L. Hanson and John Zogby in Public Opinion Quarterly demonstrates that the majority of Americans believe that the American dream is realized when hard work is rewarded with economic prosperity. Moreover, Hanson and Zogby show that Americans have become increasingly pessimistic and think that achieving the dream in a fair, legal way has become more difficult (570).
It is important to contextualize The Wolf of Wall Street within traditional conceptions of the American dream because the film undermines its legitimacy with Belfort’s lifestyle. On the one hand, the film implies that individuals who were not born into wealth like Belfort can only become wealthy through crime. Consider, for instance, Belfort’s upbringing. He was raised by middle-class parents, and even as he began his career as a stock broker, he didn’t become wealthy until he worked outside of legal bounds. On the other hand, the film shows that individuals who work hard and don’t consider a life of crime will not be fairly compensated. Throughout the film, Belfort’s extravagant lifestyle is contrasted with Agent Patrick Denham’s (Kyle Chandler) modest existence. Belfort is a white collar criminal and Denham is a law abiding FBI agent, but Belfort owns a private helicopter and yacht whereas Denham takes the subway to work.
There’s an ambiguity to all of this, because as much as we don’t approve of Belfort’s actions, we prefer his lifestyle to Denham’s. It baffles me why critics attack Scorsese and his team for glamorizing Belfort’s lifestyle when Belfort’s lifestyle is, whether we like it or not, glamorous. The sad reality isn’t that Belfort screwed over innocent people for a profit, but that it actually worked. As he and his partners move up the corporate ladder, they “have more money than they know what to do with,” thereby giving them immense power to do whatever the hell they want. They eat lobster and caviar, throw parties on yachts, and cruise around in sports cars. Scorsese and his collaborators make it all seem so wonderful because it is wonderful. What sucks, then, is that it belongs to Belfort and his team of crooks.
Therefore, if we’re going to criticize anything, we should go after the system that allows Belfort to succeed in the first place, which is to say that we should also evaluate our own obsession with money. Throughout the film, the filmmakers show how easy it is for an individual like Belfort to con the average American, and how quickly he profits off of it. In one scene, for example, Belfort sells a stock to a costumer over the phone, and the only convincing he needs to do is tell the costumer that he will become rich. By the end of the film, Belfort is convicted of fraud, but his punishment–a mere three years in prison–is a slap on the wrist. Despite going to prison and losing his family and business, Belfort continues to profit off of the average person’s desire to become wealthy, and he sells his “expertise” in get-rich-quick seminars around the world. The final shot of the film–of Belfort’s “students” looking to him for answers in the seminar–brilliantly illustrates the discomforting truth that we are all implicated in Belfort’s actions.
This is a harsh truth to confront, but it is necessary if we are to comprehend the film’s point of view. As much as Belfort cons his costumers and steals their money, he wouldn’t be able to do this if it were not for their greed. Therefore, the filmmakers call into question our own morals, and suggest that we aren’t any better than Belfort because we want what he has. This doesn’t excuse Belfort’s behavior, but it doesn’t let us off the hook. The only difference between Belfort and the average individual, the film argues, is that Belfort is good at getting rich because he goes the extra mile to con people. But wouldn’t we do it, too, if we knew how?
It’s easy to condemn one individual, but The Wolf of Wall Street shows that we are all at fault. Our culture is so greedy that we’re willing to trust other “professionals” with our hard earned money in the hope that we will make more. We buy into the stock market and other get-rich-quick schemes because we aren’t comfortable with our current lifestyles. We don’t want to be the one who takes the subway to work. We want to be the one who rides the Porsche. However, as the film demonstrates, not everyone can have the Porsche. As a result, we’re all left with a choice. Do we take the noble path like Agent Denhem and miss out on the perks, or do we screw people over like Belfort and experience the high life? This question should be simple to answer, but after watching The Wolf of Wall Street and seeing how easily Belfort gets away with everything he does, we begin to second guess ourselves. We begin to wonder if Belfort’s path might be worth exploring if there are no consequences, and if the high life, however temporary it may be, is worth experiencing in light of the lack of punishment.
Critics have compared The Wolf of Wall Street to Goodfellas (1990), a Scorsese classic about mobsters. Although the former stands alone as an important, brilliantly made film, it does have much in common with the latter. In particular, both films portray protagonists who commit crimes in order to get rich and live the high life and who ironically aren’t punished because of their wealth. Belfort goes to prison for three years and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is put in a witness protection program. As the films conclude, neither one regrets their actions, and both would do it all over again if they had the choice. This is partly because the lifestyle of the wealthy and powerful is so glamorous that it is worth experiencing even for a short time, but also because once an individual is living that lifestyle, he or she will receive special treatment. This is the paradox that interests the filmmakers: in order to live the high life, one has to commit crimes, but once one enters the high life, one’s crimes are overlooked.
Ultimately, The Wolf of Wall Street depicts Belfort’s lifestyle as glamorous because it is glamorous. The real problem, then, is that crooks like Belfort get to live it while the rest of the noble, hardworking civilization must suffice with an image of this lifestyle in their collective American dreams.
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