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 newas 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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Quentiuim

    Well, the traders/bankers who gutted the economy just a few years ago were punished way less than the subject of this movie. So one should not criticize the movie for not being harsh enough to the subject. Movies should be about the viewer making up their own judgement instead of another movie tellus us how to feel.

  2. Alan Clerk

    I enjoyed the movie. That being said it was too long. Typical of what happens when you have a celebrity director (who is amazing by the way) has final cut and can’t leave anything on the floor. The debauchery was well established so could have easily cut 30-45 min from movie and the storyline would have been much tighter. I found it to be great adult escapism and so well directed and acted you have to respect the effort. I am basically the same age as Jordan Belfort so the film is great nostalgia visually. We live in such different times with the populist movement and attack on capitalism. If you read history there has always been excess on Wall Street but that being said it is Wall Street that consolidated capital to build America and fuel the technological advances that have improved the lives of countless millions. I would take 100 Jordan Belfort’s in the system as opposed to the progressive movement of collectivism that treats capital as a finite commodity.

    • Kevin Licht

      While I agree it was long, I didn’t actually think it was “too long” and I think many of the scenes were about more than establishing debauchery. They actually did cut quite a bit out. I believe the film was initially around 4 hours long.

  3. Roberto Caldwell

    This is an incredible movie. Not sure why people are talking about it exhaulted the excess of the time.. Living in an alcohol and drug induced euphoria, he screwed others without any concern for the longterm consequences or for who would suffer, the movie clearly shows that.

  4. The movie was excellent, as a piece of art. The character it is based on is admittedly a d-bag. These two things have to be mutually exclusive.

  5. Kevin Licht

    Loved this article. Well done sir.

  6. Valuable read. Watching the first 2 hours without laughing hysterically at the depraved antics of Belfort and friends only shows the viewer do not understand dark humor. It is the funniest film of the year and yet it also takes on the ugly reality that this is the natural endpoint of capitalism. It is important, more now than ever, that film makers like Scorcese do the work of shining a light on it all.

  7. The story’s character development was monochromatic. Beyond the initial debauchery established, there could have been a richer blend of interaction and unravelling of the story. It seemed really cheap and pronographic after the fist 60 minutes or so. Repetitious, bland and silly.

  8. This movie no more condone’s excessive greed and hedonism than did De Palma’s “Scarface.” The parallels between the two characters are obvious. They are pathetic and the commentary on Wall Street greed is compelling. Hats off to Martin and Leo.

  9. There are plenty of films that glamorise greed and hedonism. Why Wall Street? Why pick on one of the few movies that does it for a reason, I wonder?

    • Jon Lisi

      I wonder, too. It’a Awards Season, as well, so perhaps the controversy was generated by another studio to take away any chances TWOWS has at the Oscars?

  10. Karinsky

    Movies like these don’t influence anyone exactly the same way that the billions in advertising that manufactures keep spending don’t influence people to buy their products. Utterly no connection at all with either idea influencing anyone.

    We have screwed our own children so very badly believing the lying premise that violent films do not influence people to be violent. That immoral films do not influence people to be immoral.

  11. Who are these people and what makes them think they know a thing about what constitutes quality filmmaking? I forgot was it these geniuses that made taxi driver, raging bull, goodfellas, casino, etc etc? Scorsese has been making masterpieces for 40 years so I don’t think he needs advise on filmmaking from home-makers and people who pump gas for a living. Just shut up. I’m so sick of puritanical philistines dismissing a film because its offensive. I read somewhere that some moron actually suggested going to see Walter Mitty instead! Right cause that hack Scorsese has nothing on Ben Stiller as a director. God help me.

    • I think most serious filmmakers hope to communicate with the audience. It is a great risk and expense to make a movie but just as the filmmakers have artistic freedom so does the audience have a right to respond. One does not have to have directed a movie to have a sense of art and an ability to analyse it. Martin Scorcese is not God , he is a big boy who has enjoyed a good relationship with his audience for 40 years.

  12. Goodfellas is one of the best films ever created, Wolf is his best work past The Departed, which is also an obvious clarion call AGAINST dishonesty and violence.

  13. Mette Marie Kowalski

    A-G-R-E-E-D! When I first stumbled of some pieces of criticism against this film, I was baffled. How can some people be so blind when it comes to their own faults and dark sides? Nothing, absolutely nothing, about The Wolf of Wall Street is glamourized – what does that word even mean? You can’t make the life of someone who has loads of money and spends it all over the place *more* glamorous. Actually, parts of the film de-glamourize Belfort’s life – it does show his drug addiction and all the nasty things that come out of it.
    Wonderful article, I have been waiting to read something like this!

    • Jon Lisi

      Agreed. And even though Belfort (like Henry Hill in Goodfellas) might be willing to sacrifice the downside (i.e. drug addiction, his wife leaving him, prison time) for the high life, I’m willing to bet that many other individuals are not willing to take that risk, and will give up the yacht as a result.

  14. Thomas Priday

    I completely agree with everything you said.

    I don’t necessarily think it’s a filmmakers obligation to keep the audience (the mass audience, anyway) happy all the time.

  15. Wayne Ferguson

    I love Martin Scorcese. I just don’t like his films… at all. But he’s a wonderful, intelligent, sensitive man. I just can’t figure out why he’s obsessed with glamorizing horrible people. Remember all the directors who turned down The Godfather when Puzo was shopping it around, most saying they didn’t want to validate or glamorize the mafia, which has hurt so many. That’s child’s play compared with this. Plus, The Godfather was art, a masterpiece and Coppola was the perfect choice.

    • Jon Lisi

      There’s a difference, though, between glamorizing a lifestyle and glamorizing a person. Neither The Godfather, Goodfellas, nor The Wolf of Wall Street glamorize the people. The films glamorize the lifestyles of its characters because the lifestyles are actually glamorous. The whole point of Goodfellas is that Henry Hill lived like a king while he was in the mob and then when he got busted his only regret was that it didn’t last any longer. The films are indictments of a kind of society that allows these lifestyles to persist. We give mobsters/wall street types the power and then when they screw everyone over we stay on our high horse. At some point we have to look at ourselves.

  16. Andrea Paul

    Although I agree with the basis of this article, I don’t really feel like anything was particularly glamorized in the film. The camera work didn’t necessarily focus on the possessions as something to appreciate or envy. They were just “things” possessed by and inhabited by people that you didn’t necessarily like. That being said, I do think it is unfair to attack a film or a director for glamorizing a particular lifestyle (even if I don’t agree that this was Scorcese’s objective). I didn’t necessarily enjoy three hours of watching people I failed to identify with (and in fact despised) but that doesn’t make The Wolf of Wall Street a bad movie. In fact it was quite a good movie in my opinion.

    • Jon Lisi

      This is fair to debate. I guess my point was that this lifestyle is glamorous by default and our problem has more to do with Belfort being able to experience it and not us. But I’ll definitely re-watch it again and take a close work at the camerawork.

  17. Irvin Adams

    Found this article interesting.

    The basic problem here, PR wise, is that we’re talking about a $100 million dollar movie staring a multi-millioniare about a multi-millionaire psychopathic banker. It doesn’t help that inequality is at an all time high. “Wolf” is a “cautionary tale” in more ways than one. That it was made at all is actually a profound indictment of capitalism and the current state of American “society”. Methinks Hollywood has more in common with Wall Street than either faction would care to admit. Americans are taught that they live in a classless society; the truth is that we in the middle of a class war.

    “Wolf” is a huge, grotesque, monstrous spectacle, so yes, people will buy tickets. I did. But 99% of the people watching the film have very different sympathies than people like Leo who yearn to “understand” banksters — they sympathize with the victims, and already understand bankers and other wealth-hoarders all too well.

    The film definitely does not glorify Wall Street, so we can put that idiocy aside. But nor is the film an “apolitical” or “objective” statement. Duh. It was written by a bankster.

    The fact that “Wolf” refers to blue collar workers as “stupid” and fast food workers as “losers” — with absolutely zero in the way of counter-narrative, and not a single representation of the victims or working class — is likely to rub a lot of people the wrong way. Which is fine, if that’s what Scorsese was going for. But there is also a very insidious underlying theme in the film that the victims were themselves primarily motivated by greed (shades of “we’re all equally guilty!”); they were not the victims of class exploitation, legalized theft and blatant criminality but their own “moral” shortcomings. That the film ends with a shot representing the “audience” adds insult to injury.

    All of this may be a provocation by Scorsese, who obviously loves controversy. Great. But perhaps it’s time to start making more movies about the brave dissidents of the system, rather than wallowing around in the filth and decadence of the ruling class.

    P.S. For two much better films relating to the subject check out the (still flawed but superior) American Psycho or the recent Le Capital. They had minuscule budgets compared to “Wolf”.

    • Jon Lisi

      This is a fair point about wanting to see more films about “the brave dissidents of the system” but I still think there’s room for both.

      “But there is also a very insidious underlying theme in the film that the victims were themselves primarily motivated by greed (shades of “we’re all equally guilty!”); they were not the victims of class exploitation, legalized theft and blatant criminality but their own “moral” shortcomings. That the film ends with a shot representing the “audience” adds insult to injury.”

      Is this not true, though? Doesn’t the audience need to be confronted with this?

  18. Great movie that left me thinking about it days after seeing it. This is very rare nowadays. Leo is one of the best of all time.

  19. Love this article because it expresses my beliefs about the film and the unfair criticisms some people have made of the film. It was based on Jordan Belfort’s biography which was pretty explicit in the activities he partook in. Martin Scorsese’s films don’t point to a specific answer about a matter, but he tells the events in such a masterful and provocative way as to get the audience to really delve into the events and make it think about what is or isn’t ethical or moral according to a particular character’s point of view.

  20. setbrizi

    I agree that this film was completely misunderstood by audiences. However, to simply say it was bad overlooks the entire purpose of this film. While it is based off a true story, the film was narrated in first person through Belfort’s eyes and thus needed to be glamorized. Who would know the extend of his desires, his passions, his lust for sex, money and power better than Belfort? What makes this film remarkable is not the extent of Belfort’s glamorized lifestyle but rather what it signifies, a fantasized version of the American Dream. This may not be people’s favorite movie of 2013, but it is definitely the film to remember because it is and will continue to cause waves with audiences and critics alike.

    • Jon Lisi

      Agreed. It’s certainly a fantasized version of the American Dream, but for Belfort, it becomes real. I think that’s why so many people are bothered.

  21. Thank you for this piece. I really enjoyed this film when I watched it in theaters. Although Belfort’s life was definitely rich and glamarous – I felt really sad for him at times because his life seemed so empty outside of his work. Particularly when his marriage falls a part and his relationship with his daughter is twisted. I definitely like your deconstruction of the film maker’s true intention to demonstrate how we want the same rich lifestyle and how that brings into question our on ethics and morals. Very good piece, thanks for sharing!

  22. The Wolf of Wall Street, in my opinion, is a warning from Scorsese. He warns American that if you completely lose yourself to greed, materialism, drugs, and copious amounts of sex you will become a monster. This is what blew me away about DiCaprio’s performance. He was like a time bomb throughout the movie – ready to blow. Great article.

  23. Jon, first let me say that I think this is a wonderful piece of writing. I do wonder, though, if there has been a confusion of terms in the critical discussion of this movie, particularly with regards to the term “glorify.”

    I would disagree with your premise simply based on the idea that a film (or any form of narrative) can “glorify” any action or lifestyle simply through the telling of its own narrative. For instance, in this case, I think many are confusing the idea that the film is told from Belfort’s perspective to be a kind of “glorification” of same.

    Really, it would take nothing short of the physical action of the artist stating, “I approve of the lifestyle Belfort chose,” to qualify as a glorification in my book. Even still, that is a glorification by the artist, not the art itself.

  24. It’s tough to call The Wolf of Wall Street a bad film. I think it’s equally hard to criticize Scorsese of unfairly glamorizing, for the very reason you eloquently describe. The ethical questions it bridged for me were the issues it raised within Belfort’s family life. Particularly, the episode that most disturbed me was when Belfort punches his wife in the stomach. It seems this violence, along with other ethical topics Scorsese touches on like the film’s rampant homophobia, doesn’t get a satisfying resolution in the end. They only seem to add to the film’s “realness,” to remind us that Belfort’s “glamorized” life comes at the cost of women and gay men. But I still find it ethically questionable to use the much more complex experiences of these marginalized groups merely for this “realness” effect.

  25. Thomas Currington

    Good article! I feel that the main problem with the Wolf of Wall Street was how they brushed over the details of how Belfort and his company worked. That, and including the man himself in the last scene.

  26. Excellent article Jon. Honestly I didn’t really know what to make of TWOWS when I saw it; it was a great experience, there’s no doubt about that, but it left me very sad in the end. I can’t help but think that maybe this was just a modern “nice-guys-finish-last” tale about the noble officer who serves the law but is forgotten and the corrupt stockbroker who literally makes off like a bandit. The final scene in the subway is horribly tragic in my opinion (especially for a movie that was advertised as a black comedy). Denham’s reading the paper and the headline reads “Straton Oakmont’s Belfort Sentenced”; there’s not even and indication that Denham himself is in the article. And then when he sets the newspaper down and looks at the other people on the subway, he sees that no one else is reading one. It’s like his good deeds have gone unnoticed and then, to add insult to injury as Irvin Adams said, we see Belfort back in a position of success. It’s dreadful to watch but in the end, you’re right Jon, it’s because of so many people’s infatuation with the bad-rich guy that people like Belfort are able to get away with what they do.

  27. Wonderfully written article, very thought provoking.

  28. Megan Kelly
    Megan Kelly

    After viewing Wolf quite a number of times, and speaking to other that saw it, I was shocked at how many people despised the crude vulgar imagery Belfort surrounded himself with in the film. I thought it was one of Scorsese’s best of recent years. The pure unadulterated energy seeping from every scene electrified my viewing experience and made me crave more. I love the film, and great article!

  29. Tigey

    Glamorized? TWoWS exposes greed the way Boogie Nights exposes lust of the flesh. Each requires a post-viewing bath.

  30. Personally, I feel this now-forgotten “controversy” was much ado about nothing. I think the fact that an article covered this issue has made it age badly. Just a thought.

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