The Wolf of Wall Street ends with its ‘hero’, Jordan Belfort, free and clear of all consequences and trying to sell to a rapt audience at a conference in New Zealand. The very last shot, a still of the rows of seats slack jawed and hanging on Belfort’s very word, is one of the most pointed mirrors of the audience one could ask for. Who are we, but people who have sat enraptured by Belfort’s tale of greed and excess for the past three hours, hanging on every word and somehow incredulous that the whole thing could be true.
Of course it’s not true, because Belfort’s narration contradicts what we’re shown on screen more than once, as cars change color and events play out in entirely different ways sober and under the influence. This lack of reliability extends to the movie itself, a tale that wraps itself in the American dream and the glamour of all the money and power so many people aspire to in capitalist society, even as it unravels faced with the inherent destruction such a story causes in its wake.
People have called The Wolf of Wall Street a glamorization of the criminals it purports to be about, but I’m not sure how anyone could look at these people and see someone you would want to emulate. They’re monsters, their greed and hunger for all things matched only by their power to go and get it. They’re buffoons who devour drugs and people as much as they do money, cartoonish in their drug-fueled stupidity and arrogance. But that’s not to say they make them into a farce for our amusement, though perhaps a shallower reading would come to this result. Instead, what this does is pour gasoline on what should already be a fire of resentment within each and every one of us for the fact that our lives are so dominated in real life by people as dense and as childishly greedy and insanely out of touch with reality. The fortunes of the world rest on people like Belfort, who takes quaaludes so powerful he has to snort a whole vial of coke to get off of his kitchen floor.
The Wolf of Wall Street is an angry movie, angry about the reality of the way things are, and wrapping its knives in laughter only so that we may feel the message that more keenly. These are the assholes that rule the world, look at their smallness and wonder: how have we let this happen? Why do we allow these people to get away with all their money over and over again, shifting from one ruinous scheme to another? The world is full of men like Belfort, and they are the kings of the world, with nobody raising hands against them.
Scorsese doesn’t provide any sort of answer, but he illustrates the problem with a deftness that is profound. Belfort’s world is one in which all the non-white people are in the background serving them, and all the women are in states of undress servicing them, because that’s his powerful man dream, the juvenile power fantasy made real. In glimpses, we see the other America, the one through the eyes of the investigator sent to bring him down: muted, relatable, full of diversity and dressed women and people of color not wearing butler outfits. Why does one not rise up and destroy the other for the cancer that it is? Because men like Belfort can sell. They can sell poison, they can sell pens, and they can sell everyday folk on the dream that these are heroes to aspire to, and that one day people like you and me might be just like them.
And so far, it seems, it’s working.