When I first put my arbitrary list of the Top 10 Movies of 2013 together, I included Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. The decision didn’t come lightly; I’ve had a very odd and ongoing conversation about this film. It had been my most anticipated film of the year by a country mile, but the experience of watching the movie drained me. It is too long, filled with shots and scenes that serve no real purpose except to keep telling us things we already know, shocking us with continued depravity or reinforcing the excessiveness and repetitiveness of Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) drugs-and-sex compulsiveness. Was it satire? Was it condemnation? Was it, as so many people claimed in various critiques, a glorification of rampant immorality? I had many conversations with colleagues about the goal of this film following that initial viewing. These conversations opened the film up as an ambivalent, outraged work about the failure to prosecute the finance sector, channeling its anger into gross satire. On a second watch though, The Wolf of Wall Street reveals significant political problems that can’t be ignored.
I’m not talking about the lack of representation of the victims. That’s a straw man argument that too many people have taken up rather unproductively. The film takes Belfort’s perspective to the nth degree, which gives it a pass at not stepping outside his blinded ideology, but that sole focus is in and of itself somewhat problematic. Personally, I don’t think American cinema has done enough since 2008 to make space for those devastated by the economic recession to feel some kind of political representation, but that critique shouldn’t necessarily factor into my own problems with the film. I’m not ready to condemn the film as symptomatic of a broader problem with portraying capitalism-gone-wrong, but the conversation about Wolf to date has been incredibly unsatisfactory. It’s been asking the wrong questions, and I think we need to have a serious conversation about capital.
Here’s the $64,000 question for a movie that’s so obsessed with money: what are we paying for when we pay to see The Wolf of Wall Street? What does it want us to understand about capitalism? Or, to put it in Capital’s terms: What’s the exchange value of this film? What’s the use value?
The real problem with this movie is its ostensibly fine relationship with Jordan Belfort. If you head to Twitter, you find the guy actively promoting the movie. You find DiCaprio thanking Belfort at awards functions. The same DiCaprio said of Belfort: he is a “shining example of the transformative qualities of ambition and hard work.” This is a Belfort, let’s remind ourselves, who constantly talks about how he regrets who he was, and yet his Twitter is @wolfofwallst. He is still embodying, if only virtually, this identity he claims to have shed. And sure, the movie ends with him being sentenced to pay over $110.4 million in restitution, but it also ends with him teaching people how to perpetuate his ideology.
And what of that $110.4 million? Only $11.6 million has been paid since 2006, according to a Wall Street Journal article which also details current investigations into whether or not Belfort has been turning over the required 50% of his income since the end of his probationary period in 2009, and whether or not he really is turning over 100% of the profits from his book, film, and speaking event royalties, as he has maintained. Belfort has remained active in promoting himself as this redeemed soul, chatting with Piers Morgan about how the film should be viewed as a “cautionary tale” and yet admitting he’s never sought out those he wronged. So the film isn’t necessarily being slight when it’s not showing any victims—Belfort himself hasn’t met them—but it does fail to mention how little of that restitution the man has paid.
Further and far more problematically still, the film gives him a cameo in its final sequence, allowing the actual Belfort to introduce the fictional Belfort as the “baddest motherfucker I have ever met.” It’s an off-putting melding of real and fiction. Is Belfort merely reading Winter’s script? Does he think of himself in that way? Did he have any say in this line? Although he says the film should be viewed as “a cautionary tale,” the last shot of the film is of a crowd of people staring at Belfort, hanging on his every word. The implication seems to entail a cycle of financial mismanagement that will continue to wreck individual lives and, eventually, the economy as a whole (in 2008). Wolf of Wall Street seems to ask, at the end, why we’re still listening to Jordan Belfort, but it’s a question that is completely undermined by Belfort’s actual presence.
The Wolf of Wall Street cost $100 million to make. It flouts cinematic excess at every turn, using computer generated imagery to create lavish sets and scenic backdrops for its characters. From its very first shot, The Wolf of Wall Street flaunts its precarious relationship to the system it supposedly critiques. The Stratton Oakmont logo immediately follows the logos of the film’s production and distribution companies, as if implying that Stratton itself is part of the production, part of the political economy of this film.
It’s hard to deny that Wolf of Wall Street features some fascinatingly disturbing scenes. Leonardo DiCaprio is stunning and captivating in it. Its basic textual and aesthetic qualities, its craft, is on par with what one might expect from late-era Scorsese, but we need to shift this conversation to how the film engages a specific mode of capitalist production that implies complicity with these very deranged people. Let’s stop praising this text until we can have a serious talk about its context. Scorsese can talk all he wants about how much this felt like an independent film and how freeing the improvisatory style of its dialogue scenes were for him as an artist, and that’s all well and good for him as an artist, but it’s still a movie that feels oddly complicit with the very thing it is supposedly angry about. Does this film challenge us aesthetically or politically? I would suggest no, that underneath the razzle-dazzle it’s a rather disingenuous film that actually takes very little risks.
If the film’s goal is to depict a depraved sector of society, what is the goal of that depiction? Does it achieve anything? Or perhaps a more ethical question: should Scorsese, Winter, and DiCaprio get paid while Belfort’s victims are still waiting for restitution? To put this another way: the Wall Street Journal article mentioned above notes that Red Granite, the film’s production company, had to pay $125,000 to Belfort’s restitution fund. So by financially supporting this film, by giving our money to view it, are we in part doing Belfort’s job for him? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I’d like to follow the money, as the saying goes. I’m not crying foul at the film as text necessarily, but rather I feel frustrated that all this movie can reinforce is that those who worked to destroy the economy not only get jaw-droppingly light prison sentences (which they did), they also get to control how their story is told and even, if they’re lucky, get to have a cameo in their own biopic. And I’m curious about what you think: is it Scorsese’s job, or any filmmaker or artist’s job, to simply depict the immorality of the world? Or should they strive to use their art to give, if not a voice then at least some of their earnings to those whom their subjects have disempowered?
Richard Brody has suggested that those who criticize this film will feel foolish in historical hindsight, but he uses this as a way to talk about the film almost exclusively on a textual and auteurist level. In many respects this is an impeccably made and intoxicating film, but to only think about The Wolf of Wall Street on that textual level and not on the level of its production, its circulation, and its relationship to both the man it’s based upon and the political environment into which it is released is to evade the key problem of its context. And maybe Brody’s right. Maybe in fifteen years we’ll have a better understanding of how Belfort is repaying his debt and how Scorsese’s film fits into our historical understanding of illegal financing schemes. For the time being, we should stop using the artist excuse for Scorsese and DiCaprio and start having a more serious conversation about the context of their work.
The Wolf of Wall Street recently became Scorsese’s most successful film of all time. Think they’ll donate any of those millions to the victims still waiting for restitution?
 “Leonardo DiCaprio on Jordan Belfort: Entrepenurial Icon and Motivational Leader,” YouTube, < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYXB8crww0I> Accessed 27 Jan. 2014.
 Charles Levinson, “Prosecutors Give Poor Reviews to Restitution From ‘Wolf of Wall Street,’” The Wall Street Journal, 14 Jan. 2014 <http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304347904579312560659290676> Accessed 26 Jan. 2014.
 Rebecca Bluitt, “Jordan Belfort says ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ should be viewed as a ‘cautionary tale,’” Piers Morgan Live, 24 Jan. 2014 <http://piersmorgan.blogs.cnn.com/2014/01/24/jordan-belfort-says-the-wolf-of-wall-street-should-be-viewed-as-a-cautionary-tale/> Accessed 26 Jan. 2014.
 Richard Brody, “The Lasting Power of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’” The New Yorker, < http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2014/01/the-lasting-power-of-the-wolf-of-wall-street.html> Accessed 26 Jan. 2014.
James N. Gilmore is a Ph.D. student and Associate Instructor in Indiana University’s Department of Communication and Culture. He received his M.A. from UCLA’s Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media. He is the co-editor of the anthology Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital (Scarecrow Press, 2014). His current work considers the circulation of media in everyday spaces, as well as with the operations of digital technology in contemporary genre films.