Years ago in middle school my mathematics teacher did a whole section on Economics and Finance, a field trip was dedicated to going to the Chicago Board of Trade (The mid-west’s Wall Street you could say), I had to do a full report on my Grandfather’s time as a life-long insurance salesman there, and many yawns were exchanged between my fellow classmates. One part though got their attention; the teacher came up with an exercise that was about the stock exchange. The idea was simple we were each given an imaginary $1000 (a tidy sum for an 7th grader) to spend on any stock we wanted that was reported on the Stock Exchange ticker daily. Each day we would all go onto the Stock Exchange reported online to see the progress of our ‘investments.’
The idea, I believe, was to get us kids thinking about investing money wisely, thoughtfully and carefully. However, the result was that everyday it turned the classroom into a trading room floor on Wall Street, with every kid clamoring for their own digits in the parade of numbers to go up and up, we would be fanatically watching them go up or down everyday.
So, in other words, from an early age growing up in middle America, my peers and I grew up knowing the value of the dollar, more to the point we knew the value of making more of it. My generation grew up in the so-called ‘hangover’ decade of the 1990’s, America, the West and Capitalism had finally defeated the evils of Communism! Seemingly justifying the mantra “greed is good”. Wealth and its acquisition became not just the American dream but single-minded determination.
Around the same time I was still just beginning to learn and experience this ‘ideal’ of the 90’s is the timeframe we find Leonardo DiCaprio’s Junk Stock Salesman extraordinaire Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese’s grand epic of sex, drugs, rocknroll and Cerebral Palsy Phases, The Wolf of Wall Street. In three dizzying fast-paced hours the audience runs the gauntlet of illegal finance trading, the ins and outs of shady stock-brokering and damn near every act of debauchery and decadence that can be filmed under an R rating (and if you’ve read the early reports of the film nearly getting the dreaded NC-17 stamp, they truly pushed the MPAA as far as possible). The film could even be considered an endurance test for most (there were a few walk-outs at my own screening), how many times can you see Belfort literally snorting lines of cocaine off of prostitutes? How many times can you witness his minions go into a sexual frenzy at one of his lavish parties? How many times can you see these monstrous men get away with it all? The answer is just enough so that the legendary director can work his magic again.
Scorsese is certainly back into prime form with his adaption of Belfort’s memoir of his exploits in the 80’s and 90’s, forming the extensively corrupt Stratton Oakmont Brokerage firm. Indeed, the arch of his anti-hero here is similar to Henry Hill of Goodfellas, and Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein in Casino. Our main character wants to be somebody in society (a somebody with a lot of cash) so they wheel and deal their way into a shady business quickly rising into the ranks, they enjoy the spoils of their lifestyle (and do they ever here) until the fall happens seemingly in a flash. Unlike the director’s previous ambitious gangster protagonists though, Jordan is a new beast completely. The soul of his existence it only seems to be to make more and more of the green, and to spend it on partying like it is going out of style.
It should be noted just how much DiCaprio loses himself in the role, it is the most unhinged, manic and, yes, outright hilarious he has ever been. Continuing with cutting lose from his pretty boy persona, starting from his Slave plantation owner in Django Unchained last year. Indeed, you could say Calvin Candy is the more restrained of the two characters. Belfort is a force of primal nature, powered and driven completely by machine of greed. The sheer extent of his warped mind would make even Gordon Geico take pause and tell Belfort to control himself.
The people that he leads into this twisted American Dream begin with Johan Hill’s Donnie Azoff. An equally morally adrift kid with the dream of green infused into him by Belfort. With a set of not properly fitted fake teeth Donnie is seemingly always snarling like a rabid dog, willing to pounce and attack at any opportunity for more monetary gains. Together they form a one-two punch driving the narrative into the most riotous sequences, the aforementioned ‘Cerebral Palsy Phase’ being one of the best executed comedic sequences in years. Hill does wonders with his best role to date, creating a hilarious slimy mess of a man. A new comer in Margot Robbie also shines as Belfort’s second wife Naomi, not willing to just be another trophy wife for him to showcase. The two’s domestic disputes help to signal that the empire is on shaky ground.
The rest of cast is superb in delivering a cast of characters completely taken over by primal and impulsive forces. Matthew McConaughey portrays this best by his chest beating and grunting as he finishes explaining to his protégé Belfort about the ins and outs of the financial world at the start of Jordan’s career, these people are no better than cavemen looking for the next source of food or sexual mates. Power, ambition and control have been insatiable desires of mankind since the very beginning. In modern society, especially at the start of the 1990’s, that has been translated by some to who ever has the most money wins out.
As the acts of stealing money and debauchery grow in the film the question that most would ask is how much is enough? The unfortunate answer is there is never going to be enough for these people. J.D Rockefeller put it best when he was asked the same question about how much money he wanted to make, his response: “Just a little bit more…” One more dollar, one more line of coke, one more hooker, one more yacht, is all just a little bit more, these people are addicted to the lifestyle that money grants you. The consequences of which will be dealt with later, if at all.
When the FBI does come knocking on Jordan’s door he tries to defuse the situation the only way he knows how, by throwing money at them, to no avail. The end for him and his fellow conspirators at Stratton Oakmont is swift and forceful. However, the unfortunate thing is that today’s audience knows that the problem at large was not dealt with enough or at all. Numerous banks and Wall St. at large continued with reckless practices similar to Stratton Oakmont unabated for years after Belfort’s fall, culminating in the economic global crash of 2008.
I remember enthusiastically remarking to my math teacher while looking over my fellow classmates all those years ago about how “This is just like Wall St.!” I now get a chill down my spine every time I think about those words. She hoped to promote responsibility, instead she demonstrated to me how ingrained ‘The Wolf’ is in my culture, and the universal human condition.