In 1990 Martin Scorsese directed Goodfellas. It is a film based on the life of Henry Hill, a gangster-turned-informant who realised his childhood ambitions of becoming one of the ‘wise guys’ only to have to turn his back on it in later life.
It’s a film which makes it clear how attractive the lifestyle of a mobster can be all while showing the short life expectancy of anyone who chooses it as a career path.
The Wolf of Wall Street follows a very similar template the Scorsese’s earlier work. However, instead of mobsters, the focus is switched to stock brokers.
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the ‘wolf’ in question who has ambitions of earning as much money as he can from selling as many stocks as he can to as many people as possible. As well as getting his kicks from making big sales, Belfort and his employees also partake in a heady mix of sex, drugs and generally hedonistic behaviour.
There is a balance to be had in a film like this between making it clear why one would be so attracted to the lifestyle Belfort and those around him chose to life, as well as making it clear that such an amoral lifestyle also brought misery to those he purposefully sold terrible stocks to.
I do find it difficult to believe that you could come out of the film feeling any sympathy or admiration for its main character. He is clearly someone who had no regard for the welfare of anyone he came into contact with and chose to live his life as selfishly as possible. “Greed is Good” as Gordon Gekko would say.
Therefore if you do feel anger that the film only shows one side of the story, I feel like Scorsese has succeeded. This is not a Michael Moore documentary, it never tells the audience how they should think, and it is only the stronger for it.
Few of use are likely to have lifestyles that embrace the deadliest of sins so warmly. However, equally we all are capable of making decisions with little regard to who may have suffered so we can get something more easily. We may not be so close to those we have wronged, but it doesn’t mean that our actions as consumers doesn’t impact negatively on others thousands of miles away.
It is unlikely our ideal lifestyle is a heady cocktail of illegal drugs and prostitution, but if we become too focused on ourselves and our own world, like Belfort we can begin to cause more harm than good.
Perhaps then the biggest problem with The Wolf of Wall Street is not that it is too sympathetic towards its protagonist, but rather that because his lifestyle is so extreme we fail to identify ourselves in it. We judge his mistakes rather than learning from them.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a film of extremes. Extreme language, extreme drugs, extreme sex and extreme selfishness. It is a warning to us all to appreciate the smaller things in life and in particular the simple joy of travelling home from work in a packed subway having made a positive difference to the world.