That Martin Scorsese’s Caligulian peep show The Wolf of Wall Street functions as a de facto funhouse mirror for the excesses of a culture that feeds on little else is, frankly, the least surprising thing about it. More than that, if we’re honest, it’s also the least interesting. Any conversation concerning stocks and the men who traffic in their illusory appeal must, as if by fiat, turn to the sociopathic underwriters of the whole damn enterprise, so the milieu itself commands a certain predictability. Where money is made, there are ethical short cuts. Where money is made with unprecedented haste, the crimes stack up like flapjacks in a hash house. As cash is shifted from one perspective to another – preferably from the pockets of those least able to absorb the loss to, well, mine – so are the ideas of blame and responsibility.
In fact, such words are best left on the outside looking in, like the spiteful breath of Gilded Age urchins frosting the front window of Delmonico’s. In the same way that the comfortably warm diners can justify their gorging by creating a moral distinction between themselves and those on the other side of the glass, those who traffic in the obscenity of accumulating wealth can (and must) draw oxygen from an altogether more rarified air. It’s bigger than simply not understanding the difference, it’s not caring. One man has, the other has not. Chances are the former lives his life not even considering the latter. He sleeps well not by keeping the demons at bay, but rather by never granting them an existence to begin with. While not an official course at Harvard Business, it’s an inescapable tenet of the life: the moment doubt creeps in, the dream fades. Care, and you’ll care with far less square footage.
But now we’re stating the obvious. Great wealth never bought a conscience, and every empire proudly sits on the bones of the less industrious. Capitalism itself equates to moral rot, and the moment you think otherwise, ask yourself when and why the language shifted to the more delightfully affirmative. Hate, and you’re hating a job creator. Tax, and you’re killing jobs. Equalize, and you punish risk. At least the barons of the past sat atop their bloated stacks with the comparable gall to avoid euphemism. When they spat, they hurled their fluids in the direction of inferiority. Pride was assumed. Now, they’re compelled to insist on a happier spin. Then, success connoted genetic superiority, with God himself on the side of the angels. Immutable and fixed, like our very DNA. Cut to a more “enlightened” age and you’re asked to believe it’s only a matter of will. A free-for-all, with nothing to hold any of us back. Compete to win, rather than rely on birthright.
Again, the obvious. The genius of Scorsese’s latest, however, is that rather than punish us with yet another cautionary tale of sin, thereby catering to our righteous dismay (there’s no better way to clear a theater than with the tsk-tsking of a humorless scold), it understands that the most fundamental American trait, apart from moral sanctimony, is that of unbridled envy. It’s no accident, therefore, that the life and times of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, in a career best performance) are, for whatever they’re worth, so damned appealing. Who among us wouldn’t trade rules and regulations for unchecked anarchy? That’s it, then, the closest we’ll come to a national motto: nothing to answer to, or for, but our own appetites. I’ll quit when I’m ready. The line will be drawn by me alone. I’ll do it, well, because no one’s in the position to stop me. An unending carnival ride with a blowjob thrown in. A Busby Berkeley musical by way of the whorehouse. Drinks for all, with an infinite tab. Indeed, when we dream, we dream like children. Only with more cocaine.
Not that Jordan is our new Superman, or the hero for our times. All things considered, he’s a ruthless scumbag with any number of shattered lives in his wake. If the film fails to show the consequences of his actions, it’s because we, the audience, would rather not be bothered. We’re too busy laughing our asses off at the midget tossing on company time. It’s even better when they roundtable the whole thing and speak of the wee ones as if considering zoo animals. Not that we should necessarily disagree with their stereotypical reductions, mind you. We roar with delight – and we do, believe me – not because we actually believe midgets are “things,” but rather out of pure astonishment. No one speaks openly in quite this way anymore, and fuck it, man, we wish they did. After all, what good has it done any of us to drive the prejudice underground? It sure hasn’t changed any hearts. Now we cloak our bigotry in the clinical, with the expected result that our loathing is more intense than ever.
So instead of the sad slog we’ve come to expect from a hypocritical Hollywood, we get celebration. Why yes, Jordan is one hell of a salesman, and so what if the guy he’s conning can’t afford the $8,000. At the very least, admire the talent on display. Salesmen are creeps, damn near to a man, but a good one? A crackerjack sumbitch who could sell Darwinism wholesale to a nunnery? Only a fool could resist, even if the most foolish of all rarely do. Any man, pushed along by the lure of a commission-driven life, and actually making a life, well, attention must be paid. A shoeshine and a smile has done more than pay the mortgage, it’s built a kingdom. And god help the man who doesn’t know it. So as Jordan wipes himself down after the wreckage of the ’87 crash, collecting fellow travelers the way most men garner lint, we stand agog at the sheer passion on display. I lose my job, I’m in the corner like an infant, weeping alone on the road to homelessness. Jordan does likewise, and he’s plotting his next move. Maybe there is something to the idea that some of us are just born to win.
Subsisting on little else but audacity and guile, Jordan moves into the world of penny stocks, rapidly transforming a shabby storefront into his own personal fiefdom. He’s the star on this most humble of stages, and it’s only a matter of time before he outgrows it. The money is too easy, the consequences too studiously avoided. Is it all legal? Perhaps not, but when the criminals themselves write the very statutes that govern their lives, who’s to say? From where I sit, if there’s a law preventing a bad guy from doing A, it’s only because it simultaneously allows an even worse guy to do B. Window dressing for the rest of us. The illusion of enforcement so the do-gooders have something to crow about at fundraisers. Jordan, like so many, knows how to get around all that nonsense anyway. So from employee to employer, pausing only to rent a warehouse and steal away Donnie (Jonah Hill), a furniture salesman who all but embodies the covetous clod so common to our landscape. Even his teeth seem to exist solely as a distraction. A smile, so the hand in your pocket goes unnoticed.
From there to even bigger buildings, with more telephone assassins to follow. If we recoil, it’s because we didn’t think of it ourselves. It’s why so many of us scream at our TVs as the invention exchange commercials mock our failed ambitions. Woulda, shoulda, coulda, while the other guy fucks blonds in a swimming pool. Tellingly, Jordan even throws up his hands at one point while trying to explain the stock market to us poor laymen. We don’t really know or care, to be honest, and it isn’t meant for us small-timers anyway. Father’s pension might keep the lights on, but his two bits aren’t greasing the wheels of a nation. Jordan’s enterprise never pauses to consider what these companies do or how they do it, only that every last drop of blood is squeezed so that all may carouse another day. Large or small, it’s the prevailing wisdom. Keep your money from those who traffic in the unsavory, and it’s doubtful you’ll ever spend again. It’s why we “buy green,” recycle, or use our own cloth shopping bags. How else are we to live with child labor, unlivable wages, and a pay disparity unseen since Carnegie last shat steel?
And so we return to the debauchery. From jerking off at parties to hot sex on a bed of money, airplane orgies to butt candles, we’re as hooked as if the drug itself were coursing through our veins. And when the sign is unveiled at last – Stratton Oakmont – we applaud as if witnessing the birth of the messiah. Who does this, this creation of capital from whole cloth? All around, I see smiles, admiration, and joy. And yet we’re asked to judge. Not here, mind you, but in theory. But it’s an exercise in futility. Who, I ask you, would not want to achieve a level of boredom so severe that we would gladly consider leaving one of the sexiest wives in Christendom, even for an evening, in order to fuck another? Where money is so disposable, so inescapably ubiquitous, that the lesser denominations can become ad hoc basketballs for the trash bin? Hell, Jordan is so the man of the moment that he can, without embarrassment, have a serious discussion with his father about the glories of a hairless vagina. If we are compelled to measure the pinnacle, we measure it thusly.
And if we are compelled to measure America itself, how else but as a hurricane of flesh, Quaaludes, and guilt-free indulgence? When we seemingly find our way, and pass the appropriate provision, or give the expected speech, we seize the mood gladly, if temporarily. It’s what we do. Monkeys are driven off our backs only as a means to invite even more to take hold. Jordan just wants all of us to share in his vision, even if only his kind share in the ultimate reward. The promise, however, is more than enough. You hear a man say three grand can become thirty in a matter of weeks, and though reason compels you to argue, romance intervenes and forges your signature. Ultimately, you conclude that you won’t be the one to miss that train, even if only the heart believes anyone’s even aboard. Jefferson’s heart/mind dilemma isn’t so much a war as a recurring massacre. If the brain ever had a fighting chance, we’d still be in trees. Caution, then, talks us out of everything worth doing. Jordan, Donnie, Nicky, even dear little Aunt Emma….the whole crew – winners rush in where losers fear to tread.
Fast cars, faster women, houses so large they can include rooms we’ll never set foot in….these are the things we live for. Without them, we traffic in self-pity. Tapping into that instinctive lust for full-tilt immersion, then, is why the first two hours of The Wolf of Wall Street fly by like a warm summer day. It’s all on the uptick, and we’re dizzy from the sheer overload. So while the final chapter, complete with FBI wires, turnabouts, and comeuppance, is a bit of a buzzkill, it’s a necessary correction, at least if we’re to be fair to the official record. Fine, Jordan and his minions are roped, branded, and jailed, but if we’re caught applauding their downfall, such schadenfreude might pause to consider the hundreds of like-minded Jordans who continue to deliver their snake oil to the willing and able. And with the subsequent “Straight Line” seminars that allow Jordan to reach thousands more – and keep his bank account no less happy than before – it would be the height of absurdity to say his brief retreat was anything like a full surrender. Such con-men lord over us with the thunderous authority of Zeus himself, and we’re but a set of tapes away from being there ourselves.