About two years late to the party, I decided to finally sit down and have a go at watching Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street (2013). The film is famous for several reasons – for example, putting Tarantino to shame with its usage of the word “fuck” – but what most lingers in the memory of viewers is the amount of time devoted in the film to the conspicuous consumption indulged in by the protagonist of the film (if you could call him that, God help him) throughout his rise and fall from glory.
The problem with the portrayal of conspicuous consumption in Wolf of Wall Street, however, is that much of the audience, even after seeing Belfort and his partners suffer and induce suffering again and again as a result of it, would still envy the excess of Belfort’s life. The scenes in which Belfort begins to show any sort of self-awareness or regret for his deeds are fleeting and retrospectively unimportant. They invoke far less emotion than the scenes of excess: we can feel very clearly how Jordan Belfort masks his own insecurity and fear of fall by self-aggrandizing (take, for example, how he boasts endlessly to an FBI investigator who seems to have gotten his better), and we envy it. His psyche seems so invincible for so long that it becomes the most recognizable face of the man throughout the film, and there should be no doubt that many in the audience, given his position, would tell themselves that they, unlike him, would know how to handle themselves and stay atop the heap. The “neutral” portrayal of excess in the film ultimately castrates what could otherwise have been a powerful, well-overdue message to the public about the fragility of wealth and the men who own it.
What we can take from the film is this: that the psychology of the rich man is not much different than that of the poor man. When faced with instability, the rich man abuses women, intoxicates himself, and becomes hostile to others. Even when confronted by a man in the right, he will become indignant. He falls for the same tricks and pays little mind when others of his kind suffer.
Another important thing to note is that the film underlines the misogyny and racism that still thrives so blatantly in bourgeois culture: the behaviour of stockbrokers at Stratton Oakmont could hardly be distinguished from what one might see in a frat house. For the mere sake of entertainment, they pay their female assistant to shave her head (similar to an ancient punishment for women accused of sexual impropriety). Jordan shouts to a jeering audience that she will spend the money on double-D breast implants. Prostitutes are regularly marched through the offices to service the male members, and are referred to in the same terms used to describe the sheets of paper on which the men do their day work, ranked by apparent “quality”. Do men of colour have any part in this? Apparently not – aside from the one stockbroker referred to by his friends as a “depraved Chinaman”, people of colour in this film are reduced to maids and chauffeurs. Nonetheless, Jordan Belfort, in trying to sell his self-help program after years of decline in his financial business, tells his audience that anyone could find his wealth with the right strategy. (As if to drive the knife further into the back of the working class, he claims several times that those who find his dog-eat-dog ethic questionable deserve to be “working at McDonald’s”.)
What should finally be taken from this? At face value, the movie appears to be an ultimately impotent show of a rich man getting off easily for a debauched life of exploiting and fleecing others. It ultimately failed to make a larger message apparent to the public, but with the right discretion and analysis, it can ultimately be used as a teaching tool for leftists interested in the unhealthy attitudes propagated by capitalism.
This article is printed in Issue 19 of Rebel Youth which is now available! The issue deals has a focus on student struggles and the federal elections. Find out more and subscribe today!