Is “The Wolf of Wall Street” a Moral Film?

Left to right: Jonah Hill plays Danny and Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures. | Image courtesy of the film's promotional webpage,
Left to right: Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures. | Image courtesy of the film’s promotional webpage,

Wall Street has never been quite the place where peaceful individuals can come together to hold hands, sing “Kumbaya,” and express an unwavering love for each other that would have John Lennon singing in his grave. The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 may have had the eventual institution of such philosophies in mind, but it didn’t quite turn out that way. Wall Street has often held the reputation of being a dog eat dog world where the fierce competition of capitalism has morality being swapped for more money as quickly as a stock’s share rises and falls. This reputation is only reinforced by The Wolf of Wall Street, the latest film directed by Martin Scorsese that has attracted nearly as much moral debate as the real Wall Street itself has.

The Wolf of Wall Street, which arrived in theaters on December 25, 2013, is adapted from Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same name, which focuses on Belfort’s time as a Wall Street stockbroker who engaged in many illegal business practices and led a highly immoral lifestyle while running the brokerage house Stratton Oakmont during the late 1980s and 1990s. In Scorsese’s film, Leonardo DiCaprio brings Belfort to life as a highly confident and devilishly charming con man with nearly no regard for the difference between “right” and “wrong” as he sells penny stocks for riches to clueless investors.

Although we’re exposed to Belfort’s shocking experiences with excessive hordes of hookers, dollars, and drugs during his time at the top, the real kicker is that so many viewers are able to keep popping over-priced candies like they’re Quaaludes while watching the film, wide-eyed and hungry to see more, despite just how terrible Belfort’s behavior becomes. Leo’s portrayal of Belfort effectively seduces film audiences into enjoying his company just as surely as the real-life Belfort seduced so many of the investors that he stole from into believing that he was actually on their side over the course of a couple of phone calls. Whether in the stock market or in a movie theater, Belfort is a master magician who keeps his audiences deeply entertained while making their money disappear. And at Belfort’s magic shows, the money doesn’t reappear out of some black hat. It’s gone for good.

Image courtesy of the film's promotional webpage,
Image courtesy of the film’s promotional webpage,

After walking out of the movie theater, I initially would’ve argued that this kind of viewer seduction was exactly the moral intention that Scorsese had in making the film. Weren’t the majority of viewers meant to reflect on their personal attractions to Belfort and their desires to live a life like his, one of great wealth and power, despite all of the immoral behavior involved? Wasn’t the film’s glorification of Belfort’s lifestyle just a part of Scorsese’s darkly comedic satire on the ethically skewed desires of a society obsessed with excess and wealth? Wasn’t Wolf primarily depicting today’s twisted inversion of the American Dream, in all of its horror and glory?

Not everybody was so quick to agree that Wolf was all too concerned with sending a moral message. Many criticized the film for its excessive depiction of vulgar sexual content, misogyny, and generally immoral behavior without enough comeuppance shown for Belfort and his associates. In an open letter posted in LA Weekly and addressed to Scorsese, DiCaprio, and Belfort himself, Christina McDowell, daughter of Tom Prousalis—one of real-life Belfort’s former business associates at Stratton Oakmont—condemns the film for its glorification of the kind of irresponsible behavior that ruined the lives of so many and that tore her own family apart. McDowell writes, “You people [Scorsese and DiCaprio] are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even if the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals.”

McDowell isn’t the only one who condemned the film for its shocking content. The Wrap reported actress Hope Holiday’s account of a Los Angeles screening of Wolf and the sour reaction that she and some other Academy members had to the film after having seen it. Holiday reportedly posted on her Facebook page, “[L]ast night was torture at the Academy—‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’–three hours of torture–same disgusting crap over and over again–after the film they had a discussion which a lot of us did not stay for–the elevator doors opened and Leonardo D. Martin S. and a few others got out then a screen writer ran over to them and started screaming–shame on you–disgusting–.”

Despite the many objections to the film’s morally questionable content, DiCaprio defended the film and Scorsese’s intentions in making it. DiCaprio stated, “I hope people understand that we’re not condoning this behavior, we’re indicting it.” DiCaprio also went on to explain why the film chose not to depict the experiences of Belfort’s many victims. He said, “We purposely didn’t show (Belfort’s) victims… We wanted the film to be a hypnotic ride the audience gets on so they get lost in this world and not see the destruction left in the wake of this giant ship of greed.”

DiCaprio’s defense of the film’s moral intention seems to indicate that by placing viewers into the shoes of Jordan Belfort, and by having viewers see the world as Belfort and his associates did—through a narrow scope of greed, sex, and drugs without much consequence—viewers might gain an understanding of how morally careless people like Belfort are actually able to live with themselves on a day-to-day basis. The film infers that the hedonistic haze through which these characters perceive the world, and through which the audience experiences the film, may be what makes these kinds of moral transgressions possible for the many real wolves that still parade Wall Street to this day. Although the film does depict Belfort having to face some consequences for his immoral actions towards the end of the film’s nearly three-hour running time, Belfort only faced as much moral comeuppance in the film as he did in real life, which one may argue just isn’t enough for the film to claim that it truly condemns Belfort’s behavior.

John Bernstein, an Associate Professor of Film at Boston University who has seen The Wolf of Wall Street, echoes such an argument. He states, “Critics make a valid claim. Perhaps Scorsese honestly believes that he has crafted a satire that indicts the excesses of American capitalism and lampoons its economy where one percent of the population robs blind the other 99 [percent]. But he fails to refute the ultimate message emerging from the film is that it is far better to be a swine and enjoy life and that there is nothing wrong in doing so.”

Scorsese’s intentions seem to have been to purely depict a shocking, unfiltered truth about the dangerously seductive lifestyle that immoral behavior on Wall Street has to offer, while simultaneously forcing viewers to reflect on their own twisted desires to follow in Jordan Belfort’s footsteps by living Belfort’s kind of life. However, is it possible that Scorsese and DiCaprio themselves may have become too lost in the extravagance of Belfort’s lifestyle to appropriately depict it on screen as a moral cautionary tale rather than an unintentional celebration of Wall Street greed, as many of the film’s aforementioned critics claim that it is? After all, most of the film’s running time is concerned with what DiCaprio calls “the hypnotic ride the audience gets on so they get lost in this world…” while only a handful of scenes at the end of the film are concerned with moral consequence.

For the viewers who weren’t actively seeking out a moral message in Wolf, might they not have ever realized that one even exists? Might they have simply remained lost on Scorsese’s sexy thrill ride through Belfort’s world of greed and lust, therefore giving due credit to the arguments made by the film’s many critics? By depicting Belfort as such a charming, attractive character and by depicting his life through a lens of wildly engaging entertainment throughout most of the film, did Scorsese and DiCaprio unintentionally condone Belfort’s immoral behavior in the eyes of many of the film’s more seducible viewers?

Samuel Hayes (COM ’15), a Boston University student studying Film/Television, shared with me his experience of seeing the film with one of his best friends who studies Finance at a different university. “After we got out of the movie, my friend turned to me and said, ‘Wow, that guy’s life is awesome. I need to get on Wall Street.’” Hayes went on to describe his reaction to hearing his friend’s words: “I was little shocked, I asked him, ‘Did you even get what we just watched?’” Hayes’ friend simply may not have picked up on the film’s moral undertones. While students, critics, and overall lovers of film may be looking for that moral message essential to most socially satirical films—especially ones directed by Martin Scorsese—many other viewers, especially those hoping to one day work on Wall Street themselves, may miss the film’s underlying moral-satirical angle.

Image courtesy of the film's promotional webpage,
Image courtesy of the film’s promotional webpage,

Mathew Fiegleman (COM ’15), a Boston University student double-majoring in Film/Television and Accounting, while also presiding over the BU Film Society, offered his thoughts on the matter from the perspective of somebody belonging to both the film and the business community. “I don’t mind immorality in film. I was entertained by the movie because it was really funny. But I also don’t really get what the point was of telling the story. If they [Scorsese and DiCaprio] are actually saying that their film is trying to send some sort of moral message, I get the criticisms. It doesn’t do a good job of sending that message. A lot of people aren’t going to get that.”

Adding to a viewer’s potential inability to pick up on Scorsese’s intended moral message is the habitually deep fascination with antiheroes that many viewers of film have possessed throughout the history of the medium. Fiegleman went on to point out that many films of the past have glorified antiheroes and have been met with much less criticism. “Look at Scorsese’s past films, even—Goodfellas, Casino. Glorifying bad guys has been happening for a long time in film. Why is this one [Wolf] suddenly causing all this trouble?”

That’s a good question, and the answer may be that unlike Scorsese’s previous antihero films, the intended moral-satirical message in Wolf is particularly underwhelming next to the seductive power of its leading antihero, Jordan Belfort. Despite having not seen the film, Aaron Garrett, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Boston University who teaches the CAS course “Philosophy and Film,” weighed in on the matter of a viewer’s allegiance to the antihero. “It doesn’t just have to be a character’s moral property that helps [us] relate to them, there can be something else to evoke [our] empathy. There can be another character—some offsetting sadist—to make them [the antihero] seem relatively better… the character could just be really funny and we like them because of that… or it could be an actor’s star power…”

When it comes to The Wolf of Wall Street, all of the points that Garrett makes about the amoral properties that aid in evoking a viewer’s empathy for an antihero could certainly be applied to DiCaprio’s portrayal of Jordan Belfort. In the film, Belfort’s utilization of charm and wit whilst narrating his rise to wealth and power spawned fits of laughter in many viewers—at least the ones who weren’t absolutely horrified by the film’s many elements of black comedy. If somebody can make me laugh, I’m typically more attracted to that person, regardless of that person’s moral disposition.

In addition, Donnie Azoff, one of Belfort’s business associates in the film, is portrayed, by Jonah Hill, to be considerably more crude, sadistic, and immoral than Belfort is shown to be. In one of the film’s more painful scenes to watch, Azoff deeply humiliates and psychologically tortures a fellow employee simply for his own pleasure. Azoff’s seemingly sociopathic disposition makes Belfort, by comparison, look like a relatively more moral person. Even if that’s not necessarily the case, it certainly helps the viewer to relate more to Belfort.

The viewer is additionally able to empathize with Belfort because of his portrayal by Leonardo DiCaprio, who is not only a deeply respected Hollywood actor, but also a rather agreeable human being. I probably wouldn’t be able to relate to Belfort nearly as well if he were played by an actor that wasn’t as well known and likeable as DiCaprio.

Whether it’s because of DiCaprio’s strongly seductive sense of showmanship in his portrayal of the antiheroic Jordan Belfort, or because of Scorsese’s incredible ability to make three hours of sitting in a dark theater feel like thirty minutes strapped into one of the craziest, funniest, sexiest rollercoaster rides in recent cinematic history, The Wolf of Wall Street does a fantastic job at tricking a large number of moviegoers into forgetting that what they’re watching is horrific in its complete disregard of the moral dimension. Scorsese and DiCaprio may argue that this is exactly the point of their film—to show how easy it is to forget that morality matters at all when you’re having so much fun as the Wolf of Wall Street.

The problem may be that the film spends very little time showing why morality matters very much at all. After two hours of non-stop fun, Belfort is shown to receive about ten to fifteen minutes of moral comeuppance by film’s end. For some viewers, that was enough to understand the brilliant moral satire that Scorsese was attempting to get across. The many viewers who didn’t feel the strength of the moral message were split between the inspired and the sickened. Unfortunately, if there are more viewers who don’t get the moral of the story than there are viewers who do, that intended message might have as well have gotten lost in the “satirical” celebration.

John Bernstein may have put it best in one of his responses: “Wolf of Wall Street is rather delightful as a cinematic experience, but at the same [time is] problematic with its dubious message that it’s better to cheat if you want to move ahead in life.  Dog eat dog, kind of a thing.  So I would say: enjoy and at the same time be on your guard….”

About Evan Tuohey

Evan Tuohey is Film and Television major who was born a writer and never strayed from it. He also loves philosophy, thunderstorms, hiking mountains, and wine&cheese dinners. Evan hopes to one day write for a serialized television drama. Until then, you may find him working as a bartender for your local catering company.

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2 Comments on “Is “The Wolf of Wall Street” a Moral Film?”

  1. What happened to just being entertained at the movies? You should know going into a Scorsese film that you’re going to find bad people doing bad things, what’s wrong with that? Do us all a favor and stop watching films and reporting about them if all you want is a message that teaches us something. Give me Tony Soprano, Tommy Disimone, Jake LaMotta, the Jack Nicholson character in “Departed”, Ralph Fiennes in Schlinder’s List and let me watch them treat people horribly and not look for what happens when they stop treating people poorly, what does that tell us about ourselves if we enjoy that? I DON’T CARE!!

  2. the real deal here, is that leo and marty did a great job telling this man’s story and now the real Belfort needs to figure out how to clear up his debts from the past here—around 70-80 million still unpaid ?

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