An Analysis and Review of 'The Wolf of Wall Street' (2013)
Rapidity and its grievous ramifications are the topic of many parables which generations of people from all parts of the world have passed down through centuries. From the tales of General Crassus to Mammon, we are forewarned of the suffering that comes from the cardinal sin of greed. However, no matter how often it is ingrained into our minds that there are human flaws we should not fall prey to, we do anyway because it is in our nature to do so.
We would too, if left to our own devices, without self-control, and devoid of our human desires of hedonism, because there is something so inherently attractive about having a lifestyle that makes you capable of doing anything and having everything at any moment, but past that belies nothing but an emptiness of spirit and terminal anhedonia.
Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” brings us the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the pilgrimage of debauchery from which he baptized himself from 1986 to 1996. Very quickly we watch him turn from a smart and upstanding young man to a modern-day Caligula, having every day and night be an unpredictable sea of fervid emotion intensified by drugs, money, and women.
Belfort, by way of his brokerage establishment Stratton Oakmont, created the world’s largest “pump-and-dump” scheme using penny stocks, scamming $200 million out of the pockets of thousands of Americans, which we are shown excessively in the film, to go to extravagant parties and indulge in total chaos. The film’s one and only focus on Jordan as the protagonist forces us to subconsciously side with him against our own morality, showing us how we too would consider the sacrifice of our dignity for absolute power and wealth.
The film never lets us see the damage to households and hardworking families that Jordan cheats out of life savings, as Jordan never saw it either. It is the idea of faceless and nameless victims which are so far away that clouds our judgment to think of only what we see. In fact, even after Jordan’s downfall, we aren’t given a serious consequence to deal with. After being caught by the FBI, Jordan has his ill-gotten gains seized and is sentenced to four years in a federal prison with great amenities, but released in 22 months for good behavior. It is almost satirical how easy he gets off the hook for his actions after all he did and is shown in a way to depict how terribly easy some people get it, even though they shouldn’t.
The moment in which Jordan is officially too far gone to be saved is when he cheats on his wife with Naomi (Margot Robbie), as his wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti) was the only link that Jordan had with his life before this transition into “The Wolf.” Teresa and FBI Detective Denham (Kyle Chandler) are the only characters in the film that stand for morality with Denham, even at one point attempting to become a Wall Streeter, but eventually turning it down. When Jordan tries to bribe Denham, he sticks with his sterile life of train rides and salaries because he sees what greed could do to him. The fact that Denham and Jordan were both in the same place at one point and given the chance to appeal to greed shows a duality of values. This demonstrates to the viewer that this film is not a glorification of greed but rather a caution against it. However, the film knows that the superficial viewer will not see it as so.
Throughout the film, as Jordan worships money, the employees under him at Stratton Oakmont worship him. This, along with the fact that Jordan constantly speaks to us directly, makes the viewer worship him even as he is committing terrible actions. Even in the last shot of the film, when he is a public speaker, he is gives an audience a speech on how to become a better salesman. He continues to get our attention and time, as we hope to be like him, because looking at everything together, it seems like living his life would be better than living a normal life.
There is no antagonist that Jordan ever faces before the police, with all matters resolving themselves. Money allows him to do whatever he wants, and even when he is in a life endangering situation like the scene where he’s overdosing on quaaludes, the scene isn’t shot in a traumatic and mind-breaking way to show us a consequence, but is rather given to us in a comedic slapstick type of way, that puts no pressure on the audience to reconsider the characters' choices. The film reveals more about ourselves than those it depicts, by tempting us with a lifestyle that is, on the surface, so much better than our own.
Young people, especially young men, commonly see “The Wolf of Wall Street” as a fun story about how a good life of money and constant luxury could be. In actuality, the film is quite a sad telling of how a person can break many people’s lives, including those in their own family, and how underwhelming justice can be in punishing terrible people.