Over the holiday break, I made the mistake of seeing Martin Scorcese’s new movie, “The Wolf of Wall Street”. To be honest, I came out of the theater feeling as though I had taken a swim through a pool of raw sewage and needed to ask God’s forgiveness. The film is unquestionably pornographic, but if that was the only problem that I had with it I would not bother to write this critique.
The primary problem I had with the movie is that it is one-sided. The movie is three hours long and is about a man who defrauded thousands of investors of millions of dollars, yet not one single victim of this fraud is shown or even alluded to in the entire film. Where is the widow who recently lost her husband and was defrauded of her retirement savings? Where is the guy who lost everything and turned to alcohol and lost his life in a drunk driving accident? Where is the family that cannot afford to send their kids to college because they lost their college fund? If you believe the self-serving propaganda of the main character in the film, the victims were all rich people who didn’t need the money. The movie doesn’t give you a single reason to doubt the veracity of this highly unlikely claim. The story told by the movie, therefore, is nothing short of a miracle. The only victimless stock swindle in the history of mankind.
“Okay so the movie is a bit one-sided”, some people might say, “What difference does that make?”. The difference it makes is that by showing only the one-side of the story you are essentially making the movie into a recruiting poster. Consider the Army’s recruiting videos over the past few decades. “Be all you can be” with stirring music and images of smiling young people learning electronics, flying helicopters and marching in the bright sunshine in clean uniforms. Do improvised explosive devices appear in these advertisements? Do the bodies of dead enemy soldiers? Why not? Because it is a recruitment poster and it would not do to show a balanced perspective.
While the movie does show some of the possible consequences of white collar crime to the people who perpetrate it, these consequences could seem worth it to impressionable teenagers in the absence of showing the damage done to other people by this behavior. This fundamental problem is illustrated by the very title of the film. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is the title of an article that exposes Stratton Oakmont’s shady business practices. While the main character worries that this will ruin his business, his wife reassures him that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Sure enough, the film later shows a huge number of people swarming the offices of Stratton Oakmont looking for a lucrative job fleecing gullible investors. According to the movie itself, then, even telling the story complete with a depiction of the victims would be positive publicity for those who want to defraud others. What would the effect be if you stripped out many of the negative aspects by not showing the victims?
Now some have compared this movie to Martin Scorcese’s earlier film “Goodfellas” and argued that just as “Goodfellas” did not glorify mob behavior “The Wolf of Wall Street” does not glorify white collar crime. But if you look at the movies in terms of the depiction of the victims, there is no comparison. In “Goodfellas” the victims of the crimes are present and sympathetic. Consider the young bartender Spider who is brutally murdered by Joe Pesci’s character “Tommy”. This is one of the most horrifying and memorable scenes that I have ever seen in any movie and this is just one of the depictions of victims in that film.
Martin Scorcese, Leonardo Dicaprio and Jonah Hill should be ashamed of themselves. By showing the lavish lifestyle of Jordan Belfort and his co-conspirators without showing the victims, they have created a movie that is effectively a recruitment poster for the fraudsters and con artists whose predatory practices are destroying our country. The deep and abiding shame of the Christian right in the United States is that our uncritical support of the Republican party and its business allies means that we are unable to condemn the excesses of Wall Street or their depiction on film.