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The Wolf of Wall Street (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

The Wolf of Wall Street


Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski and Ethan Suplee.

Screenplay by Terence Winter.

Directed by Martin Scorsese.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures. 179 minutes. Rated R.

In 1987, the year that The Wolf of Wall Street begins, Michael Douglas starred as Gordon Gekko, the ultimate symbol of Reagan-era self-indulgent avarice in Oliver Stone’s cautionary tale Wall Street.  Gekko became a symbol for materialism and coined a mantra for the ravenous, gluttonous, self-obsessed, win-at-all-cost quest for money.  It was simply this: “Greed is good.”

Of course, in the world of Wall Street (and its significantly weaker 2010 sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) greed led the character of Gordon Gekko to spend years in jail for insider trading.  Nonetheless he became a hero to a certain type of person, and his kind of insatiable need for money laid the foundation for the kind of income inequality which has turned the US (and world) economy into the mess it is today.  Earlier this year, it was estimated that 1% of all the people in the world control 40% of the combined wealth on the planet.  By comparison, the poorest 80% of the planet controls a mere 7% of the world’s wealth.

Greed is good, indeed.  At least for that 1%.  It kind of sucks for the rest of us, though.

Gordon Gekko is name-checked briefly in The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorcese’s epic (and surprisingly funny) look at Wall Street greed and decadence.  However, that character’s influence suffuses the proceedings.  Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, who rode junk stocks to unbelievable wealth and a Bacchanalian lifestyle, Wolf of Wall Street is a veritable orgy of materialism, greed, drugs, hookers, crime, sports cars, yachts, dwarf tossing, self-indulgence and anti-social behavior.

Like it’s protagonist, The Wolf of Wall Street believes in making everything bigger and better (including its running time, which clocks in at an astounding three hours), a celebration of extravagance and high living.  While you know that the filmmaker is trying to condemn the lifestyle, he can’t help but luxuriate in the over-the-top consumerism and misbehavior in which his characters indulge.  It may be shallow, superficial, criminal and reckless, but you have to admit it looks like a hell of a lot of fun.

Much like Gekko, Belfort is not so much the hero of his own story as the anti-hero.  He is a living, breathing monument to insatiable appetites and the idea that no matter how obscenely wealthy you are, you can still never have enough money. 

Playing Belfort is actually Leonardo DiCaprio's second straight look at the divine decadence of prosperity, following Baz Luhrmann's misguided adaptation of The Great Gatsby earlier last year.  DiCaprio was one of the few good things about Gatsby, but in Wolf of Wall Street he is completely in the zone, getting a well-deserved Best Actor nomination for this breezy look at consumerist hedonism.

What Jordan Belfort was, essentially, is the world's greatest salesman without any real concrete product to sell.  Therefore he sold himself. 

His me-first attitude was instilled in him by his own personal Gekko.  High-powered stockbroker Jack Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) took Belfort under his wing early in his career and explained to him the cold hard truth of investing – it doesn't make a damn bit of difference if the client makes money or not, as long as you are collecting commissions.  The job consists of taking money from the client's wallet and putting it into your own pocket.  If the client ends up making money, great, but that really doesn't matter.  They are addicts, they will keep coming back.

Belfort started out selling penny stocks to people who could not afford them, eventually clawing his way to the big time, opening his own firm which specializes in getting orders from "whales," investors who bring with them massive amounts of capitol.  Their business was an odd mix of frenzied arena and frat party.  Belford does not so much disregard SEC regulations as blatantly mock and antagonize them.

Scorsese uses his legendary storyteller's eye to add a vivid sheen to the proceedings.  He does not judge, he just luxuriates in the high lives these characters have built for themselves and then watches impassively as they start to crumble.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a fascinating life lesson, because it realizes the soul-draining emptiness of these people, but it also recognizes the seductiveness of living life with no rules.  This film is Scorsese's best work in several years.  It is on a par with his other similar classics about the sirens call of crime, Goodfellas and Casino.  Yes, it's that good.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2014 All rights reserved. Posted: March 18, 2014.

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