Two weeks after watching The Wolf of Wall Street I’m still trying to determine exactly how I feel about it. The further I get from watching it, the more distain I feel. I’ve not read the book, but am told the movie comes pretty close. The question that continues to wind through my head is why?
Why did Scorcese make the movie? Why did it attract such big name talent? Why did DiCaprio, who plays the main character Jordan Belfort, befriend and in essence promote Belfort outside the movie? Why in the world did I immediately want to go see the movie after watching the preview? Finally, why did I enjoy it so much?
One thing is certain, Martin Scorcese has done something I didn’t think possible – make present day Wall Street look tame.
Don’t get me wrong, Wall Street is still run by narcisstic, solipsistic, egotistical, greedy executives who aren’t nearly as intelligent as they believe themselves to be. But these people don’t make an appearance in The Wolf. Instead, The Wolf, Jordan Belfort was determined to become like the big shots on Wall Street, not what he actually was, a two-bit hustler.
The Wolf of Wall Street might lead the uninitiated to believe that all of Wall Street behaves like Jordan Belfort, they would be misled. I’ve only spent three weeks of my financial services career on the actual Wall Street (well, technically the World Trade Center Towers), but I do talk to a lot of people on “The Street” and have read a ton of books (so…I must be well informed) and worked for several Wall Street firms. While I spend a lot of time denigrating Wall Street on this blog, most of the people I deal with are good people – nothing like the brokers portrayed in The Wolf.
In The Wolf, hookers are ever-present, every drug imaginable is in constant use, “Fuck” is not just part of the vernacular – it is the vernacular (seriously, like every other word), fancy cars and gigantic homes distinguish the elite from the low-level employees. But this type of behavior is more Wall Street cliche then reality. Scorese doesn’t capture Wall Street in this film.
Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of debauchery going on at the Wall Street firms (so don’t be too disappointed), but not like in the Wolf.
Drugs are common below the executive suite, but normally as a way to work excessive hours or as an attempt to relax or cope after 70 hour work weeks (not justifying). Unlike in The Wolf, the average Wall Street employee is not routinely soliciting hookers (or hiring them to show up en masse on the trading floor). I’m positive Wall Street hookers do brisk business, but not like in the movie. Swearing, fancy cars and homes are a staple of Wall Street – but again, the average Wall Street employee could never dream of owning a Ferrari or a house like featured in The Wolf (let alone a jet, a yacht and a helicopter) – those are reserved for the big shot Hedge Funders, the lucky traders and the overpaid C-level execs.
The language in the Wolf however is 100% authentic. Swearing is pervasive on The Street and much of the brokerage world in general, there is nothing nefarious behind it, it’s just part of the speech. I learned words I never knew existed early in my career and spending my first four years at the biggest Wall Street brokerage firms (Merrill, Smith Barney, Morgan Stanley) initiated me into this second english dialect. When every other word out of most broker’s mouth is “fuck” you eventually pick it up as part of your own speech (unless of course clients are around, then you revert back to regular english). The F-bomb is used as a verb, a noun, an adjective and to preface nearly any phrase that can be uttered. I overheard an argument one time about the proper placement of the F word – something along the lines of “I f-in hate this place” vs “I hate this “f-in” place.” There is a difference…evidently (english professors feel free to weigh in, I’m sure the context matters). I haven’t been in a brokerage environment for almost a decade, but I’m sure it hasn’t changed much and if excessive use of the F-word was their worst fault…
Wall Street in all its glory has players who make millions and live a jet setting life, but this is not the average person working for a financial services firm. There are many good and smart people working on Wall Street (and brokerages) who deserve respect (I’m a little shocked I said that as well). The Wolf just isn’t reality. In fact, it was devoid of any of the reality that really mattered. In the three hours of storytelling there was never a focus on a single victim. The film was entirely devoid of nuance. Sure, it was Jordan Belfort’s reality, for awhile – but it’s not Wall Street. For all those college age kids watching the movie, hoping to get a job on the Street so they can be the next Wolf…they’ll be sorely disappointed. In fact, if you want to be the Wolf all you have to do is drop out of college and work on your con man skills. The Wolf did nothing that couldn’t be or hadn’t already been done by con men before on Wall Street, he was just the most brazen and perhaps gifted.
Unlike Michael Lewis, who wrote the Wall Street classic Liar’s Poker, this film is an invitation to the excess of Wall Street. Lewis didn’t write his book to lure people into a career on the Street, he was horrified to find that it had the opposite impact – those who read his booked yearned for a life in the towers of New York City. The Wolf is even more inviting, but maybe we can hold out hope that today’s youth see Apple and Google as more inviting.
The Wolf was not a “Wall Streeter,” he was a wannabe. He craved the respect of Wall Street but would never get it. Wall Street looked down on The Wolf, laughed at him when they even paid attention. The Wolf was such a small bit player that until the book and movie Jordan Belfort (the main character) would hardly manage a footnote in the annals of Wall Street (now he’ll be legend thanks to Scorsese).
The real irony is that Belfort wasn’t a “Wolf” at all, he was a small time hustler who wrecked hundreds of lives and made perhaps several hundred million before losing it. He was a piker compared to the real Wall Street. Belfort wasn’t smart enough to understand to truly con people out of huge sums of money, you have to do it legally. Wall Street understands this (how’s that for nuance?).
This brings me back to the question – why make this movie?
I think most people have it wrong. It wasn’t made as an anti-Wall Street movie (like Wall Street, Boiler Room, Margin Call, etc) it was an ode to the depths that humanity can plunge, Wall Street just happened to provide a nice background.
How else could one justify making a movie about such offense behavior and NEVER featuring the impact of those behaviors on the victims? Both Scorcese and DiCaprio have been called out by many for making such an offensive movie. Few movies have done such a good job of offending. It’s offensive to women, people with disabilities, little people, normal Wall Street employees, Americans, humans, motivational speakers, the middle-class, the upper-middle class, the upper class, the victims (who have never been repaid)…you name a group and there was likely a scene that was offensive to that group.
The movie would be nothing without this offense – it would be like filming a boxing movie that had no boxers in it. Jordan Belfort’s life (to this point) was an affront to society and it was on purpose. And it was the pure honesty of Belfort’s book that drew in Scorcese and DiCaprio (as many have pointed out, it was the ultimate con). Belfort had taken licentiousness to a level that had surely been attained before (and likely on Wall Street), but never detailed in a memoir. The tale was told as a cautionary one, so that you might not fall into this hedonistic behavior yourself, blah, blah, blah…whatever.
Never mind that Belfort could easily have kept his riches if he had taken an earlier plea deal…meaning that his behavior would have been all but rewarded. Do we really need to watch three hours of fantasy frat boy behavior to know that excessive drug use, constant visits to cheap hookers (followed by dramatic amounts of antibiotics) and cheating good people out of their hard earned money is probably not the path we should take? I’d argue not.
In this regard, the movie was an insult. It was an insult to all of us regular Americans who can surely handle ourselves and our money, even if it were to ever measure in the hundreds of millions.
So then, why did I enjoy the movie? I think the reason I enjoyed the movie was the opposite reason it was made, faced with all those same choices – I took a different path (the other F word – Fiduciary). My not so latent narcissim allowed me to be temporarily lifted up as I reveled in the comeuppance that Belfort so surely deserved for his treatment (mistreatment) of Americans who were taken in by this con man. Watching his downfall felt like some justice had been served. Justice in this case was swift, but ultimately not very harsh. There are drug dealers (likely ones who supplied the Wolf) in jail for longer sentences than Jordan Belfort received. Millions has still not been repaid and likely never will be to victims of the two bit con-man they call The Wolf. He is free from jail and has hollywood celebrities fawning to promote him, life is looking up…it’s to bad the same can’t be said for the hundreds he swindled.
Instead of going to see the movie, send the money you would have spent to the victim’s Restitution Fund (I’m not sure you can, I’m researching this and will update if I can find a link).
In case you’d like to read a bit more about the victims and background:
Scott Dauenhauer, CFP, MSAP, AIF