February 08

Filmlab: Best finance movies of all time – 10. The Wolf of Wall Street

“Money is the oxygen of capitalism and I wanna breathe more than any other human being alive.” So says Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s bacchanalian celebration – and it is a celebration, regardless of the protestations to the contrary from those involved – of Jordan Belfort, the lupine trader of the title whose Long Island brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont made hundreds of millions by illegally operating on the fringes of Wall Street in the late 1980s and 1990s. As the man himself, DiCaprio is outlining Belfort’s myriad addictions – Quaaludes, sex, cocaine – but money tops the list, and over the subsequent three hours or so it’s literally and figuratively thrown at the screen as Belfort’s degeneracy facilitates a slew of rude, crude and lewd behaviour that would shame a Roman emperor.

Of course, detailing the excesses of the financial world is as fundamental to movies about the stock market as bad acting is to a Ewan McGregor film (*cough* Rogue Trader *cough*), but The Wolf of Wall Street stands alone in its unapologetic avowal of such profligacy: there’s no real comeuppance for Belfort; by the movie’s end he hasn’t grown a conscience, changed his ways or even gone broke. The rampant display of debauchery – and the film’s cartoonish presentation of it (at one point a bump of coke gives Jordan Popeye-like superpowers) – does, however, serve a purpose beyond disingenuously trying to sicken us with the sight of such relentlessly bad behaviour.

Belfort may be addicted to money, but his skill is his ability to get everyone else addicted to it too – or at least to the idea of amassing it quickly without working for it.

That’s the side of the stock market The Wolf of Wall Street is really interested in laying bare, though it’s not the first to do so. Boiler Room – which used Stratton Oakmont’s business dealings as its inspiration – got there 14 years ago, using the lyrics to slain East Coast hip hop giant Notorious B.I.G.’s Things Done Changed as the credo for its scheming, money hungry “white boy” stockbrokers: “Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” Unlike Giovanni Ribisi’s character in that film, though, DiCaprio’s Belfort is not some in-over-his-head neophyte who has to learn to reset his moral compass. From the moment his eyes are opened to the chest-beating no-one-knows-anything machinations of Wall Street (on his first day no less), he views everybody as potential prey.

Hence why the legit-sounding Stratton Oakmont is set up as a “pump and dump” operation: Belfort and his similarly venal crew of executives buy up large amounts of worthless stock, inflate the price by using aggressive sales techniques to rook unwitting investors, and then dump the stock quickly at a huge profit, causing the price to plummet and those aforementioned investors to bear the brunt of the hit. It’s highly illegal, but Belfort is a brilliant salesman and in an aspirational culture such as this, conspicuous displays of wealth – lake-side mansions, white Ferraris (“like Don Johnson’s in Miami Vice”), luxury yachts, private choppers – are the best way to create demand for the kind of junk that he’s selling. He’s creating urgency – “We get them to want to buy the stock by making them think it’s something they need” – without ever having to provide the full picture.

It’s a technique the film itself deploys: any time DiCaprio’s Belfort breaks the fourth wall to detail the ins and outs of a particular trade, he interrupts himself and skips to the outcome. All that matters, he frequently reassures us, is that it happened and it generated X-amount of profit; apparently that’s all we care about. In a way, it’s a nifty trick, leaving us questioning how, exactly, Belfort got away with this for so long. And that’s also the swizz of the film. It shows us everything, but tells us nothing – or nothing we didn’t already know (people will always want money; sex and drugs can be fun). Scorsese and DiCaprio (whose production company won a bidding war against Brad Pitt’s for the rights) have used their A-list credentials to convince us that Belfort’s inflated sense of himself is worth investing in. And that’s the formal triumph of The Wolf of Wall Street: it’s the cinematic equivalent of a pump-and-dump scheme.

Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman, 8 February 2014