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Why 'The Wolf of Wall Street' Exists

If a movie walks you through hell, that doesn't mean it actually wants you to go there.
Wolf of Wall Street. (Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Wolf of Wall Street. (Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

If nothing else, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is a pretty good case study for the debate over whether any movie needs to be three hours long. Except for very rare cases—like, once-every-decade-rare cases—a movie does not need to be three hours long. And if The Wolf of Wall Street were cut down from three hours long, it would likely involve trimming much of the hedonistic fat that has made it such a cause de celebre for opponents of the financial institutions it depicts, their excesses and sociopathy and general disregard for anything outside of themselves. As a film, The Wolf of Wall Street suffers from this overindulgence in spectacle—it bogs down and scatters an otherwise well-written, witty script and takes away from Scorsese’s colorfully agile direction. The Wolf of Wall Street is a good movie that could’ve been a very good movie, though I’m not sure it really has greatness in it, except for the performances, which are great in the way that a basketball player scoring 60 points in a game is great. Even better if that game is a loss.

But even if you were to scrape the film down and tighten it up into a 150-minute, or even 120-minute, capsule, some people still wouldn’t be happy. Not for reasons of film, either; that’s a different discussion. These people argue that The Wolf of Wall Street should not exist, that its subject and narrative inherently glorify a dude who does not deserve to be glorified. And these people have a point, but I think they’re wrong.

The majority of great art, in one way or another, confronts some difficult aspect of life as a human being, whether it’s sin, destitution, weird sex, or whatever.

The point they do have is this: Jordan Belfort is, or was, a bad dude. Jordan Belfort, who has more or less picked himself up and dusted himself off, is a guy who defrauded many, many people, all for the personal gain of himself and his associates, and, either in a direct or indirect way, contributed to the financial collapse of this country. With his ill-gained money, he indulged in an almost unbelievable drug habit, harrowing amounts of paid-for sex, and took consumerism to its logical conclusion.

But here’s the thing: depiction isn’t glorification. If it were, there would be no great art about war, no art about violence, no art about any vice or immorality or indiscretion, because by depicting these things the art would invalidate itself from being great. And not only is there plenty of great art about these things: I’d argue that the majority of great art, in one way or another, confronts some difficult aspect of life as a human being, whether it’s sin or destitution or weird sex or whatever.

Walking out of The Wolf of Wall Street, I felt like I’d just been dragged through hell. Not in an Inferno-esque way, not by a guide or with an eye toward metaphor, but in a very literal, very illustrative way. I was revolted by Jordan Belfort, pretty deep-down revolted, and I actually wondered about the future safety of the real-life Belfort, considering how awfully he comes off in this film.  Nothing he did in that movie seemed at all enviable or desirable. He came off like a guy who, in order to accomplish what he accomplished, had twisted his conscience and sensibilities so aggressively that the only way for him to experience anything was to go to the greatest possible excess. That sounds horrible. It looked horrible: drug addiction and hookers and acting like a total clown all the time. If that’s something people admire, then they will admire Jordan Belfort in this movie, a Caligula-like maniac without any of the power. Scorsese’s portrayal has elements of glee for the first half or so, and that’s not unreasonable: drinking and drugs and sex can be fun; that’s why people do them. But he also shows Belfort almost-raping his wife, inhaling a bag of cocaine, punching his wife in the stomach, then driving a car into a stone wall while his young daughter sits in the passenger seat. If you somehow think this vision of Belfort is in any way flattering, that’s on you.

Ignoring the fact that Jordan Belfort existed does not render Jordan Belfort out of existence. He is a real person. He did these things. Just like how ignoring all of the other, very real blights that exist won’t make them go away—global warming, guns everywhere, etc.—not talking about Belfort doesn’t make him not real. Instead, talking about him reminds us that there are still people like him that exist. Wall Street hasn’t gone anywhere! Excessive, ill-gotten wealth might be even more widespread now than it was during Belfort’s heyday, what with the increasing divergence between the extremely wealthy and the poor. And yet, still, no high-ranking financial leaders have been prosecuted for the at-best negligence, at-worst outright destructiveness that caused the financial crisis.

Wolf of Wall Street’s attempt at allure—the movie’s reminder that other humans genuinely liked this guy, were loyal to him, enabled him—reminds us that there’s a reason people do shit like this. Men with too much money have indiscriminately abused the world around them for as long as civilization has existed, and they’re not going anywhere. After all, that nickname, the Wolf of Wall Street: that didn’t come from Scorsese.