Martin Scorcese’s new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, about the famously decadent financial scam artist Jordan Belfort, is getting plenty of attention these days. But so is an op-ed by Christina McDowell, the daughter of one of Belfort’s former colleagues, who recently came out against what she sees as the film’s glorification of greed and recklessness. She writes:
You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.
And yet you’re glorifying it… Did you think about the cultural message you’d be sending when you decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn’t made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior.
I went to see The Wolf of Wall Street on New Year’s Day. As for whether or not the film glamorizes the famous greed and excess of Belfort and Stratton Oakmont… well, there is a lot of grey area here, much of it by design.
For roughly the first two hours of the film we follow in almost comic-bookish detail the drug, sex, and money-intoxicated escapades of Belfort and his associates. I won’t get into any of the shocking examples here, partly because those details don’t really matter, but also because it’s impossible for me to relay them without feeling the need to give my laptop a shower.
To dismiss this movie simply as a celebration of materialism and greed is unfair. Scorcese clearly wants to make a deeper point here, which he does successfully towards the end of the film. As we see, Belfort, despite routinely defrauding investors and flouting the law for his entire career, ultimately spends just three years in a minimum security facility that appears more tennis club than prison, thanks to his cooperation with the FBI (meaning, in this case, the selling out of his close friends and colleagues).
After this, we’re treated to two powerful images to conclude the film: In the first, we see the lead FBI agent, who has worked so assiduously and with such integrity to bring down Belfort, riding home from work in a rickety subway car, clearly pondering whether the modestly-compensated life of a federal employee, in contrast to the insane riches of the crooks he investigates for a living, was the right choice after all these years. And in the last scene, we see Belfort himself, having emerged from prison and stepping onto a new stage, this time as a guest speaker lecturing to a room packed with fresh, bright-eyed students eager to jump into the sales game, all of whom are hanging on his every word. In the end, the film tells us, the financial bad guys win. But it gets worse: Despite the ultimate crashing and burning of Stratton Oakmont, there are legions of new recruits standing ready.
So, no, I didn’t think think that the film deliberately advocates materialism. But the great irony here — and where McDowell’s piece gets it right — is that the film still ends up perpetuating the very cycle of destructive multigenerational greed that it so artistically depicts.
Could Scorcese have shown us more of the actual misery caused by Stratton Oakmont? Absolutely. During nearly three hours of footage, the audience never gets a glimpse into the lives of Belfort’s duped investors, some of whom, we’re told, were people in the middle class who were especially financially desperate. Had the filmmakers actually depicted this wreckage (towards the end, at least, we’re witness to the messy disintegration of Belfort’s own family), it would have made a difference. But honestly, I’m not sure how much.
That’s because no matter how powerful the moral lessons of the film’s final hour, by then the damage is already done by the first two, during which we’re invited to marvel and laugh at Belfort’s supercharged lifestyle and all the insanely hilarious and improbable stories it produced. The young viewer pondering a future career as a financial cowboy won’t be scared off from the movie’s life lessons at the end; these might be about as effective in deterring a life of greed and excess as a surgeon general’s warning on a pack of cigarettes is in deterring smoking. The ironic death of the Marlboro man from lung cancer, I’m sure, did little to unravel the lasting impact of decades of cool, rugged smoking imagery. In the end, glamor wins. So it is with this movie.
This is not a call for censorship; I also want to live in a world where artists have a broad sense of liberty over what they depict and how they go about it. But that does not mean we should ignore the reality that the artistic glamorization of vice is now troublingly common. There are plenty of examples in the sphere of materialism, reaching well beyond Wall Street: I loved hip hop as a kid, and watched it transform gradually from a storytelling of hardship to a gospel of “get rich or die trying“. But the glamorization of horrible things goes beyond the realm of money. When I watch TV commercials for video games featuring celebrities grinning and seemingly invincible as they blast their way through a simulated war zone, I shudder. I wonder what the real-life war veteran, watching from a wheel chair as a result of having his legs blown off by a roadside bom, must think about all of this.
In all likelihood, this trend — what Shoghi Effendi in 1938 so aptly labeled “the prostitution of art and literature” — is a function of both supply and demand. It seems artists’ sense of shame in providing it has dulled. But our appetite for it has also increased:
A 2013 study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that tracked materialism in 355,000 high school seniors from 1976 to 2007 found that desire for lots of money has increased markedly since the mid-1970s, while willingness to work hard to earn it has decreased. Among kids surveyed, 62% thought it was important to have lots of money and nice things between 2005 and 2007, while 48% had this view from 1976 to 1978.
I hear myself sounding like an old man as I read back my own words. But there are real lives at stake; as McDonnell writes, the greed and disregard depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street “brought America to its knees” just a few years ago. The ripple effects of the financial crisis are still with us — lost savings, high unemployment, and a swollen national debt that threatens the eventual rollback of Medicare and Social Security — and will likely stay with us for years more. The political battle to make the financial sector safe again and prevent such a cataclysm from replaying itself in the future is being waged thus far with marginal success. But it’s going to be awfully hard to win this war when the other side has such a steady stream of foot soldiers standing ready to join the fight.
Like many things, this is not a struggle that will ultimately be won only by clever regulations and public service messages. A more potent weapon is needed, one capable of matching the immense force and ubiquity of materialistic propaganda. What better than a humble and selfless dedication to God, to spirituality, to prayer and meditation? What else is more effective in reminding us, both in our brains and in our hearts, that greed is wrong, and that the shiny gloss of materialism is just a cheap, paper-thin facade?
Rejoice not in the things ye possess; tonight they are yours, tomorrow others will possess them… By My life! Neither the pomp of the mighty, nor the wealth of the rich, nor even the ascendancy of the ungodly will endure. All will perish, at a word from Him. He, verily, is the All-Powerful, the All-Compelling, the Almighty. What advantage is there in the earthly things which men possess? That which shall profit them, they have utterly neglected. Erelong, they will awake from their slumber, and find themselves unable to obtain that which hath escaped them in the days of their Lord…
I’m looking forward to the day that we can recognize these materialistic fantasies for what they are: childish and dumb. Until then, we’ll simply have to live with the reality that life imitates art, no matter its form.