The thing that stands out in Martin Scorsese’s uproarious comedy The Wolf of Wall Street is the curious lack of victims or, for that matter, the very notion of victimhood. Which is strange, because if you look at the life and legacy of Jordan Belfort, it is very hard to ignore the 1,513 clients he defrauded. Belfort’s 2003 sentencing agreement requires him to pay back the $110.4 million he swindled from his clients by giving them half his future income. At last count, he had only paid a little less than a quarter of a million dollars (plus a further $10.4 million that was generated by selling off property he had already forfeited). With the extraordinary success of his two books and this film, which have netted him over $1.7 million in income, one hopes the victims see some more money, though the matter is still the subject of legal manoeuvring.
In Scorsese’s film, though, not one mention is made of these victims. It is a conscious decision. Not caring about the consequences of Belfort’s crimes is precisely the point of The Wolf of Wall Street, an attempt at capturing the excesses of greed. There is a shift in perspective that enables this; unlike Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby or Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, where the charismatic but deeply flawed antihero is seen from the perspectives of young, wide-eyed and eminently impressionable narrators, your guide to Belfort’s life is Belfort himself. Shorn of a Bud Fox or a Nick Carraway, there is little to cause the audience to stop and consider the morality of Belfort’s boiler room operations. There is little time either, with Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter taking you on a rollicking cocaine- and quaalude-fuelled orgy of excess that had me, at least, laughing much harder than I have in any recent Hollywood comedy, up to and including The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. But once you’re done laughing at him and his motley crew, what are you to make of them?
Not very much, sadly. It is unclear whether Scorsese is trying to use Belfort’s story as an archetype for the coked-up, ethically slippery and deeply materialist masters of the universe who ruled Wall Street in the 1980s; Belfort’s is, after all, an extreme case. The more likely characterisation is of Belfort as a working-class antihero climbing up the social ladder using non-kosher means. But there is little redemption for him in the film. He’s a prick to both his wives. He’s nice to his employees, yes, but only because he panders to their greed. He shows little contrition even after his downfall; the only concerns he has are for the loss of his lifestyle. These concerns are put to rest when he realises his wealth entitles him to a luxurious life even in prison. The final image is of him playing the most atrocious tennis with fellow inmates, juxtaposed with the visual of Patrick Denham (Chandler), the FBI agent who put him away, going home in a metro with fellow working stiffs. It’s a juxtaposition that would be familiar to those who’ve watched the relative fortunes of Steve Buscemi’s bootlegger Nucky Thompson and Michael Shannon’s prohibition agent Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire.
As a contrast to base an entire film on, however, it is rather weak. The Wolf of Wall Street is an entertaining film, with excellent performances and direction, but fails as either a satire or character study. For the latest addition to a genre that has the likes of American Psycho, Scorsese’s “companion film to Goodfellas” is disappointingly weak.