Reading Excess: On Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street

By Mark McConaghy

In a past life I once spent some brief time roaming the halls of the investment bank Lehman Brothers looking to get a sense of what the world of finance was all about. I’ll spare you the details of how I actually got to walk through the doors of the place, but Martin Scorsese’s new film The Wolf of Wall Street made me recall my time there. In fact, the film made me recall a particularly fascinating conversation I once had with an executive vice president who worked there.

We were in his office after a long day of client calls when we began discussing my interest in filmmaking. He told me to pursue it and that a life in the arts would certainly beat working in the Wall Street meat-grinder for a living. The conversation circled over to the great film’s made about American finance- most notably Oliver Stone’s cutting critique of American capitalism Wall Street- when the banker said something that I’ve remembered ever since: he was adamant that no film had ever really captured what investment banks actually do and what the experience of working within them was truly like. He said that films mostly made Wall Street into a demonized space of rampant excess, a stereotype that didn’t come close to capturing the quotidian labor that actually went on on the Street.

Lehman Brothers Faces Bankruptcy As Top Bidders Pull Out
The once grand facade of Lehman Brothers’ former office in Times Square, Manhattan.

Although the banker wouldn’t have used these words, I understood him to be emphasizing a point that was actually incredibly profound: no American film up to that point had ever really captured the essence of financial capitalism. Given the multiple attempts at telling stories about Wall Street, I wondered whether it was even possible to capture the system of financial capital on film. Sure, we can make movies set in investment banks; we can tell narratives of how high finance corrupts the soul (Stone’s Wall Street, J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call); we can even make documentaries detailing the intricacies of financial crisis (The Inside Job).

But can the quotidian reality of Wall Street, its essence as a lived experience of life for an elite group of financiers, be captured for an audience?  We can denounce this world as materialistic and craven; we can chart the detailed mechanisms by which it makes profit for itself; we can even show its destructive effects on government balance sheets and “mainstreet” manufacturing economies across the land.

Yet regardless of what tactic you choose to represent Wall Street with, it seems oddly immune to critique. Indeed, for all of the filmic energy used to denounce the place, its attractiveness for young people intent on making fortunes for themselves has not diminished one bit. In that sense, Wall Street is the oddest of representational objects: the more you try to reveal its seamy underbelly and soul-destroying materialism the better you make it look. You can critique its predatory greed all you want- but the critique actually only adds to the lore of the place.

Indeed, Wall Street thrives precisely on moralistic denunciations of itself. It relishes in being demonized, embracing it as a mechanism by which it can define those who are against it and those who are for it. In this way, it can separate the wheat from the chaff, isolating those who are man enough to make some real money as oppose to sit on the sidelines and drawn on and on about social justice.

Thus we come to a profoundly odd place with Wall Street as a cultural concept. It’s a place we know will destroy our souls. Yet still thousands of young people in business schools all across this land would do anything for the chance to sit in front of a Morgan Stanley or Barclay’s trading desk. Wall Street feeds off of the moralistic denunciations leftists make of it; by critiquing it you reproduce the very ideology that motivates the place and thus unwittingly inspire young people to hustle as hard as they can to become part of the 1% it represents, even if those young people know how exploitative it truly is (on themselves and the social body as a whole).

It is within that paradox of representation that I think we need to read Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Wolf of Wall Street. The film turns the real-life white-collar crimes of penny-stock pusher Jordan Belfort into a comic-extravaganza of late 80s excess. The film begins at a 10 on the decibel meter and never lets up, becoming essentially a 3 hour montage of relentless prostitution, sex, drugs, orgies, criminality, debauchery, and rampant disregard for the victims of financial predation. Between the trading floor ticker-tape parade whore mongering and the office midget olympics, the film can’t help relishing in its over the top momentum. It also features wonderfully offbeat and wacky supporting performances, most notably from a deliriously androgynous Jonah Hill as DiCaprio’s right hand man.

WW 7

There are, I think, two major ways of reading the film, depending on whether you think Scorsese and his screenwriter Terrence Winter (from Sopranos fame) are doing something terribly dumb or exceedingly sophisticated. The first interpretation of the film was the one I initially gravitated towards and has been eloquently summed up by the New Yorker’s David Denby:

The Wolf of Wall Street is a fake. It’s meant to be an exposé of disgusting, immoral, corrupt, obscene behavior, but it’s made in such an exultant style that it becomes an example of disgusting, obscene filmmaking. It’s actually a little monotonous; spectacular, and energetic beyond belief, but monotonous in the way that all burlesques become monotonous after a while.

I couldn’t have put the point better myself. The problem with The Wolf of Wall Street is of course, as Frederic Jameson has always reminded us, an issue of form rather than content. The film wants to critique the nihilistic greed that fuels white-collar crime in America, but it presents that greed with such formal exuberance, such bold, energetic, down right gleeful style, that it ends up celebrating it rather than effectively critiquing it. Here, the message of the film- greed is bad and will corrupt your soul- is totally destroyed by the form through which that message is presented- the over the top, steady-cam heavy, exuberant montage style that Scorsese has chosen to shoot the movie with.

Leonardo DiCaprio can give all the interviews he wants about how he and Scorsese did not make the film to condone sexual and financial excess, but when the camera lovingly frames the two beautiful cheeks of a prostitute’s curvaceous ass only to have Leo pop up from behind it, snorting a line of coke off its supple ridges, what is the audience supposed to think?

Of course it would be great to be Jordan Belfort for a day. Who wouldn’t want to be super rich and to have all of our sexual fantasies satisfied? Who wouldn’t want to dominate society and bend it to our will in that way? So you don’t really buy Scorsese and Dicaprio’s apologies for the film. The two of them are having too much damn fun presenting scene after scene of raunchy sex and relentless partying.

WW 4

That was my initial reaction to the film, and I shared Denby’s feelings of disgust over the brazenness of its attitude towards human suffering (“disgusting, obscene filmmaking”). Scorsese and Dicaprio seemed to think that an audience would want to spend three hours with a self-obsessed sociopath who stole millions of dollars from hard-working Americans, or that watching him party it up ad-nauseaum was something that would be compelling for us.

The film’s refusal to shift focus, even partially, onto the victims of Belfort’s crimes, or to the larger dynamics of American society during the 1980s, makes all its energy and frivolity actually quite boring after awhile. I mean how many times do we need to see Jordan fuck (one could hardly call it “making love”) his chosen prostitute before we feel disgusted to be forced to be in this guy’s presence? Without a complex personal or social ideology to his name, and absent any kind of philosophical depth to his personality, Belfort actually emerges in the film as a relatively mundane and vacant man, one hardly deserving of such a lavish biopic.

But then I began to think about the film for a while and a thought struck me: what if the disgust and anger I felt at having been forced to sit through three hours of such obscene behavior was precisely the point of Scorsese’s film? The most troubling aspect of the movie is that it never, at any point, provides the audience with a sense of moral catharsis by showing how Belfort’s crimes eroded his soul, forced him into paroxysms of guilt, or made him truly remorseful. Indeed, the film systematically withholds any moment in which moral order is restored for the audience. Belfort ultimately goes to prison, but one of the last shots of the film is him playing tennis in a minimum security institution. In smarmy voice over he reminds us that, for rich white people, prison really isn’t that bad.

Unlike say the television series Breaking Bad, Scorsese’s film never provides us the moral reassurance that bad deeds will go punished, that criminality destroys not only our families but our own moral health, that we will suffer internally from the guilt our actions engender.

In this sense, Scorsese’s film is angering and outrageous to watch. But it is also utterly brilliant, for it unrelentingly depicts the craven immorality of Wall Street without suggesting that such immorality has been safely dealt with, contained, regulated through law and the State. It does not traffic in the myth that Wall Street’s misogyny and greed, its sociopathic regard for only its own profits, have been successfully curtailed and liberally reformed. We want Belfort to get his comeuppance, but he never quite does

No, the film’s endless debauchery, its unrelenting glee at its own fuck-fests, its overflowing jouissance hold within them a profound and disturbing message: the logic of unrelenting greed and the fascistic drive for power that defines financial capitalism really is this bad, it really is this craven, it really is this purely disgusting. And it is flourishing in ever more vociferous and rampant ways, without any ounce of moral regard or guilt over its own self-destructive habits. And it wins, time and again, just as it did in 2008, when the American State stepped in to save Wall Street from itself, when it gave a socialist hand-out to the very bankers who had been yelling on and on about the glories of free-market capitalism for the better part of a century.

In this sense, Scorsese’s film may just be the most appropriate response to the 2008 financial crisis that one could hope for. We know that moralistic condemnation simply doesn’t work as a mode of critiquing Wall Street- it in fact just makes the ideology of finance even stronger. Wall Street wants to be told how ugly and disgusting and greedy it is. People in finance thrive on the villainy that moralistic leftists accuse them of.

So Scorsese and his screenwriter chose another tactic: they tried to out-Wall Street Wall Street, to plunge us so spectacularly and in such an over the top manner into the women-hating, sex-loving, pill-popping, eye-bulging, big swinging dick culture of the Street, without ever given us the reassurance that this culture is not triumphant, that moral order reigns in our society, resulting in a film that couldn’t but make us outraged after we come out of it.

It is, in my opinion, a brilliant strategy for critiquing the uncritiqueable.

WW 6

So I would suggest that we shouldn’t be outraged at Scorsese, DiCaprio, or Winter for making this film. They were simply trying to find a visual language for critiquing what resists all criticism, grappling with the reality that, up to this point, all other visual attempts to do so have by and large failed. What we should really be outraged over is that the destructive culture of high finance still exists in our society. In this manner, Scorsese’s film may just be the right antidote to finally, once and for all, puncture the self-satisfied ideology that financial capitalism uses to justify itself.

If a film can produce outrage within us, if it gets us angry as we leave the theater, it may have just done its job. The question now is whether or not we will channel that outrage in the right direction: against the MBA yielding wizards who pray and trample on indebted students, first-time home owners, and unsuspecting retirees everyday, taking their “commissions” whether or not their bets win or lose for their clients.

Watch the film, feel the disgust, and then go to your government representative to demand that more be done to ensure that high finance is made to bend to the will of the people, rather than the other way around.

We would shudder, after all, at the idea that a Jordan Belfort would ever find a legal or moral home in our society. What Scorsese’s film reminds us of is that it is we who have been forced to find a legal and moral home in his society.

And that is the truly outrageous thing we need to grapple with.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.

4 thoughts on “Reading Excess: On Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street

  1. This review is largely a joke written by somebody who has no idea about Wall Street. Always nice to see a wannabe’s take on things but it’s mainly a farce.

    While the behavior described in this movie definitely existed in the late 80s and 90s it is largely a fiction now. Reality is compliance regimes at banks / hedge funds alike have clamped down materially. A lot of what is shown in the film is a seriously fireable offense.

    Query how much a student of East Asian studies actually knows about finance.

  2. Scorsese wasting time reheating
    Oliver Stone’s droppings.

    Meanwhile, DeNiro, as he ages,
    is looking more and more like STALIN.

    Scorsese should be directing the definitive STALIN.

    NOTHING —-but NOTHING could be more relevant in 2014.

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