If your inner anti-capitalist has ever suspected that major financial institutions are home to a bunch of coked up wankers, Martin Scorsese has proved you right in his new film The Wolf of Wall Street writes Liam Mac Uaid. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Jordan Belfort is advised on his first day on in the office that the secret of professional success and longevity is a daily cocktail of masturbation and cocaine. However, what Scorsese does not do is to offer a subtly excoriating critique of contemporary capitalism. That’s his style. No one who has watched Goodfellas comes away thinking that Scorsese wants us to disapprove of the Mafia. He is at his best when he is showing a closed society observing its own rules. Whatever moral judgement is made about the characters is left to the viewer while the director shows them squarely on their own terms. You may feel that Belfort is an amoral, drug addled, misogynistic, anti-social, thieving, wife beater but the director lets him provide the narrative to his own life and career. There are only a couple of scenes in which the impact of financial speculation on the rest of the population is hinted at. Belfort’s first wife has some qualms about him taking the life savings of postal workers and cab drivers. His sincere response is that he knows how to spend it better than they do. Then, right at the end of the film, his nemesis is sitting on a tube train surveying the travellers who inhabit a parallel universe to Wall Street.
Any film that’s three hours long is a huge gamble. On the other hand any film that opens with Dust My Broom by Elmore James has hit the ground running and, there’s no doubt about it, Scorsese keeps up the pace of a world class middle distance runner for every second of the 180 minutes. This is an attempt to recreate the frenzy of a crooked, get rich quick form of capitalism. As one of the characters observes to DiCaprio, they produce nothing tangible. They sell stocks and shares, persuade clients to buy more stocks and shares in the belief that a rise in their price makes them rich. They only people who get to see real cash are the brokers who trouser the commission.
Belfort and his cronies who set up a brokerage house called Stratton Oakmont in the 1990s got rich beyond imagination. Office parties had dwarf throwing competitions, marching bands and waiters offering unlimited champagne. Todays’s mega rich think nothing of spending £100 000 on a bottle of wine. Back then the fashion was for exclusive vintage drugs. 150 feet yachts, helicopters and Lamborghinis were essential lifestyle accessories. It’s easy to see where the Russian kleptocracy learned its habits.
This film is a real return to form by Scorsese and DiCaprio turns in his best ever performance as boy from an ordinary background who joined the global elite. He’s the narrator and he takes it for granted that only an idiot wouldn’t want to be like him. The real Belfort on whose book the film is based is now giving interviews saying. “For me, it’s important that the movie is viewed the right way, certainly as a cautionary tale.” Actually, no. As he points out himself, all the big Wall Street firms do more or less what he was doing and very small numbers ever went to jail and that was usually for less time than they deserved due to striking deals with prosecutors. Regulatory agencies were ineffectual and easily bamboozled. As Scorsese tells the story it was only the relentless determination of one FBI agent which finally brought Belfort’s world crashing down. Meanwhile, as recent history has demonstrated, most of the rest of the big crooks carried on business as usual.