The Dim-Post

January 12, 2014

Notes on ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Filed under: movies — danylmc @ 2:03 pm
  • Briefly, Martin Scorsese’s new movie is about a stockbroker named Jordan Belfort who ran a ‘pump and dump’ scheme during the 90s market boom.
  • It is very funny
  • It is far too long (>3 hours; you could lose at least an hour and lose nothing. The gay butler scenes, say)
  • Leonardo diCaprio is phenomenal
  • The story of a man who gains the world but loses his soul and then loses everything else and is condemned to a life of banality seems to mean a lot to Martin Scorsese, because he’s made at least eight different movies based on this premise.
  • Two of those movies (Goodfellas, Raging Bull) are two of the best films ever made. Although the subject is the same they’re very different movies. But this is basically a comic version of Goodfellas set on Wall Street.
  • So Scorsese is attracted to these amoral outsiders and likes to make films about them. Fine. But for a major American director working in 2013 to make a movie about Wall Street and base it on Jordan Belfort seems, well, lame. The scale of Belfort’s crimes is tiny in Wall Street terms. He was eventually found guilty of securities violations totaling about $200 million dollars. Compare that to two Wall Street scandals of 2013: The LIBOR rate-fixing scandal estimated to cost investors roughly $186 billion dollars and the HSBC drug money laundering scandal involving transfers of around $670 billion.
  • As the movie makes clear, Belfort and his associates aren’t really Wall Street guys. They don’t have MBAs or Phds from elite universities. They have no political power and no legal protection. When Belfort gets caught he goes to prison. No one from HSBC or J P Morgan is ever going to prison despite committing crimes on a far larger scale than Belfort’s because they work for companies that – by and large – control the political, judicial and regulatory environments they operate in. They’re above the law.
  • Which, if you ask me, is a more interesting subject for a filmmaker.
  • Unlike Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street ignores the victims of the lead character’s crimes. His investors are just suckers on the end of the phone. And I guess that’s true to the subject: guys like Belfort don’t spend any time thinking about their victims. Besides, it wouldn’t be that funny to watch scenes about thousands of people having to sell their home, and their business, and having nervous breakdowns and committing suicide because Belfort took all their money and spent it on drugs and hookers. But it does perpetuate the notion that white-collar crimes are victimless crimes.
  • The result is a movie about Wall Street that doesn’t deal with any of the epoch-defining problems of Wall Street and an amoral destructive anti-hero who seems to operate in a victim-less environment. I liked it, but it’s awful irreverent. It’s no Goodfellas. It’s not even Casino. 


  1. “No one from HSBC or J P Morgan is ever going to prison despite committing crimes on a far larger scale than Belfort’s because they work for companies that – by and large – control the political, judicial and regulatory environments they operate in. They’re above the law.”

    Or to put it succinctly, Too Big To Jail. With an unhealthy dose of Regulatory Capture.

    If it’s not the Roman Empire with cellphones, I don’t know what is.

    Comment by deepred — January 12, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

  2. It’s no Goodfellas. It’s not even Casino.


    So another Oscar for Scorsese then? 😉

    Comment by TerryB — January 12, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

  3. Meh, saying “A movie about Wall Street should be about the largest scale crimes” is like saying “A movie about the mafia should be about Carmine Persico”. Just because he didn’t make the movie you think urgently needs making, doesn’t make this a bad movie.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — January 12, 2014 @ 9:42 pm

  4. kalvarnsen, it’s not just that there are bigger crimes. Like Matty Yglesias said: “These guys in this movie aren’t real Wall Street guys. They have tacky outer-boroughs accents and no education. The idea that the FBI and the SEC need to do a more rigorous job of keeping sleazy drug-addled deviants from posing as real stock brokers and investment advisers is the most comfortable possible reform proposal for the real Titans of Finance”

    Comment by simian — January 13, 2014 @ 4:51 am

  5. Good point.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — January 13, 2014 @ 7:28 am

  6. The gay butler scenes should stay because they show Belfort being affected by actions very similar to his own (orgies, money theft, general disregard for other people) and being a complete hypocrite about it. But yeah, the movie could definitely have lost at least half an hour from somewhere.

    Comment by helenalex — January 13, 2014 @ 10:44 am

  7. Another doco to watch on the subject – and I believe it was part of a very recent Documentary Edge fest – is Four Horsemen. It’s on YouTube while it lasts.

    Comment by deepred — January 13, 2014 @ 11:35 am

  8. JC Chandor’s “Margin Call” is the best dramatic film (so far) about the sort of people who caused the Global Financial Crisis, and what happened in the immediate flame-out. It’s very condensed by both design (it’s set over a 24-hour period loosely based on the mass sell of toxic product that led to the collapse of Lehman Brothers) and environment (we scarcely leave the perspex offices, and when we do, it’s oddly terrifying). But it’s also wickledly acted- some of Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons’ best work. Both actors thrive playing a certain kind of vulpine duplicity.

    As for documentaries, “Inside Job” is hilarious and jaw-dropping, but only because most of the major players seem totally unaware of the disjuncture between their actions and words. It’s remarkably precise- I came out of it enlightened, overwhelmed and satisfied. Interesting to note that Elliot Spitzer was one major political figure who could see the writing on the wall a good half-decade before anyone else, and as Attorney General, he his best tried to stop it( through a series of class-action suits against the major investment banks for breaching fair trading laws). It makes one wonder how different things could have been if he weren’t such a flawed and fallible person.

    As for “The Wolf of Wall Street”- I loved it, but I concede Danyl has a point about the oddness of Scorsese’s choice of subject. But the film is refreshing in the sense that it doesn’t even pretend that Belfort’s downfall is in any way tragic or that he learned something from it. Unlike Goodfellas, Raging Bull, the Casino, the Departed or even the Aviator (or the Last Temptation of Christ!), there’s no suggestion that the lead protagonist had any sense of loyalty or scruples at any stage- he’s a monstrous ego right from the start.

    It’s reflected in the way Scorsese uses music. In nearly all of his other epics, Scorsese makes an effort to let the audience soak up entire songs and the camera movement is fluid and unbroken. In “the Wolf of Wall Street”, we get fragments smashed together (it goes from Devo to Maclom Maclaren to Bo Diddley to Naughty By Nature in a matter of seconds) and the editing is juddering and confrontational. It’s reminiscent of the “FBI Helicopter” sequence in “Goodfellas”…except it’s extended over the course of an entire film!

    DiCaprio has grown from strength to strength as an actor. He needed to “grow into” his looks, and in a way both this and his performance in the otherwise flawed “Great Gatsby” suggest the next stage of his career could feature him playing a rogue’s gallery of monstrous emblems of glamour gone to seed.

    Comment by Matthew Littlewood — January 13, 2014 @ 9:22 pm

  9. Erm, apologies for those comments being loaded up twice- if Danyl could delete one iteration of them that would be great- this blog really needs an edit function!

    Comment by Matthew Littlewood — January 13, 2014 @ 10:41 pm

  10. It’s got a scene in Auckland hasn’t it, where Belfort becomes a “motivational speaker” to an audience of the Dumb and Mad.

    If this actually happened, how the fuck did a convicted fraudster get a visa to come to NZ and continue in much the same line of work?

    Comment by richdrich — January 14, 2014 @ 11:56 am

  11. “The Wolf On Wall Street” and “Arbitrage”. These movies are making a comeback. Mine is called “Lord & Cameron” and it is about a stock brokerage in New York City named Lord and Cameron and the President is an old Harvard alumni; the CEO is his very dodgy nephew; and the CEO’s girlfriend is 25 years younger than him and an innocent waitress, so, you know, all pretty formulaic.

    Comment by Daniel Lang — January 14, 2014 @ 3:56 pm

  12. re: Ricjdrich…

    Comment by J Mex — January 21, 2014 @ 1:19 pm

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