Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
The highly entertaining "The Wolf of Wall Street" tells the tale of wretched excess. In doing so, it also becomes one of Martin Scorsese's finest films.
Like the maestro's other crime dramas, such as 1990 "Goodfellas," 1995's "Casino" and 2002's "Gangs of New York," "Wolf" is a epic cinematic extravaganza with a twist. Instead of Scorsese's traditional heat-packing gangsters, all of the antagonists are white collar criminals. Scorsese has also traded the Little Italy of 1973's "Mean Streets" for Manhattan's meaner street, located about a mile south on Wall Street, where America's high-rolling villains ply their trade.
The motion picture is, in part, based on the autobiography of convicted stock swindler Jordan Belfort, depicted by Leonardo DiCaprio with great panache. The driven, Bronx-born Belfort made and spent a fortune on hookers, drugs and excess during the high-rolling 1990's. Early in the movie Belfort snorts a line of powder perched between a prostitute's buttocks, in one of Scorsese's visual puns painting his anti-hero as a true "crack whore." But Belfort, whose arrival on Wall Street coincided with President Ronald Reagan's sweeping deregulation, is quick to assert that money is his favorite drug by far.
In Manhattan's Financial District, Belfort is mentored by an outlandish master of the universe, whose primitive male behavior is side-splittingly depicted by Matthew McConaughey. He sadly does not have enough screen time. Although "Wolf" is set prior to 2008's catastrophic meltdown, it can be seen as a metaphor for the recklessness and greed that led to the Bush-era financial catastrophe.
Although avoiding the bigger collapse of 2008, the film does depict 1987's "Black Monday" event, which causes Belfort to lose his job at a Wall Street firm. He lands at a penny stock marketing office in Long Island's boondocks, but Belfort's Wall Street savvy and conniving antics impress his colleagues, and he soon becomes successful enough to establish his own billion-dollar "Boiler Room" operation -- which served as the inspiration for Ben Affleck's movie of the name.
Although it doesn't have much of Scorsese's trademark violence, "Wolf" does feature plenty of obscenity: drugs and sex are par for course in this film. Naturally, "Wolf" is rated "R" for its depiction of what then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan dubbed Wall Street's "irrational exuberance" in 1996.
Corporate parties, featuring midgets tossed at targets, an underwear-clad marching band, a Shirley Bassey sound-alike belting out the tune title song to 1964's Bond film "Goldfinger," and more prostitutes than you can count aptly capture the depravity of a debauched ruling class, feeding at the trough of a financial system eagerly cannibalizing the American dream. Of course, Belfort's boys play fast and loose with what laws there are. These characters' only morality is making a buck, by any means necessary, which underpins Scorsese's morality tale about what happens when unbridled greed becomes the norm and Wall Street runs rampant.
Belfort's free-enterprising partners in white-collar crime include Jonah Hill, as the fictionalized character Donnie Azoff. Hill has come a long way since playing young losers, like in 2007's "Superbad." In "Wolf," Hill depicts a money man not unlike the shrewd accountant he played in 2011's sports drama "Moneyball," a character that combines his comedic persona with more edge to him. Overall, Hill pulls off his finest performance yet as Belfort's greedy confederate, in a role that could actually give him a shot at Oscar gold.
The stellar cast includes 2011's "The Artist's" Jean Dujardin as a smarmy Swiss banker, Jon Favreau as Belfort's lawyer Manny Riskin, Jake Hoffman as shoe designer Steve Madden, and writer Fran Lebowitz and ex-NYPD cop Bo Dietl also make cameos. Ron Reiner also makes an appearance as Jordan's father, "Mad Max" Belfort, who works as an accountant for his son's firm. In a particularly fine scene, Reiner wonders with deep resignation when enough will be enough for his wayward lad.
Apparently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was also asking the same question, and eventually Belfort's outrageous fortune and hubris lead to his ensnarement by the Feds. Indicted for money laundering and securities fraud in 1998, Belfort was sentenced to return $100 million-plus to investors he swindled, and he spent about two years behind bars. But like all Wall Street guys, he served easy time at a "Club Fed" prison.
Critics of corporate greed may wring their hands in despair at the film's denouement. However, Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter's "crime pays" narrative here may actually be the most subversive thing about "The Wolf of Wall Street." Perhaps the film is telling us that the FBI and SEC can only "punish" Wall Street with a slap on the wrist because they, after all, operate as one of Wall Street's wholly-owned subsidiaries. Meanwhile, Wall Street's big money players continue to act with almost total impunity.
Today, the real life Jordan Belfort is a bestselling author who touts himself as a motivational speaker, training people in marketing and how to climb the corporate ladder. After all, "everybody wants to get rich," DiCaprio says onscreen.
And as in Scorsese's legendary mafioso movies, "Wolf" focuses on those who act outside of the law. It asks of the audience: What distinguishes these financial institutions from criminal operations? What's the difference between gangsters and banksters?
"The Wolf of Wall Street" seems to be saying that the financial sector uses attaché cases, computers, phones and financial instruments, instead of Tommy guns, to commit its greatest crimes. But unlike society's dealings with the mob, we continue to let them get away with it.
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L.A.-based film critic Ed Rampell is co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book," in stores now.