Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we’re celebrating the release of The Irishman with a retrospective of the work of Martin Scorsese. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is a masterful, albeit coincidental, exploration of the 4th-century theologian and philosopher Augustine of Hippo’s question, “But what do I love when I love my God?” The question isn’t about any God in particular, of course, but how we are shaped by the things that we worship. In this film, God is money, and we are congregated to witness a sermon from one of its most devout disciples, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Wolf of Wall Street is an adaptation of real-life former stockbroker (and current convicted felon) Belfort’s memoir of the same title. Chock-a-block of shock, sex, drugs, toxic masculinity, and unbridled capitalism, it follows Belfort from his relatively innocent beginnings as an eager young stockbroker breaking into the US market through his Icarian ascent to the bottom.
This is DiCaprio and Scorsese’s fifth collaborative effort and their comfort with each as actor and director shows. The obnoxious, yet undeniable, charisma of DiCaprio’s Belfort is nuanced and deeply rooted in the human condition. Scorsese skillfully utilizes this charisma by having Belfort in direct conversation with the audience throughout the movie. Through this narrative device, the audience is put under the spell of an adroit salesman capable of selling his story as the American Dream.
Belfort cuts his teeth at a traditional brokerage firm, losing whatever innocence he started out with under the mentorship of senior stockbroker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). Hanna takes fledgling stockbroker Belfort under his wing and teaches him that the keys to success as a broker are masturbation and drugs. After losing his job to Black Monday, the stock market crash of 1987, Belfort takes those keys and enters the penny stock market. It’s during this low point in his career that he develops a pump and dump scheme. Belfort and his partners profit by buying shares of penny stocks, artificially inflating their prices, and then dumping those stocks.
This pursuit of money is as clever as it is without morals. The brokerage he founds, Stratton Oakmont, is made in his likeness – a wolf dressed in success’s clothing. He’s indiscriminate about his victims, willing to defraud the one percent and the middle class alike. And by employing his degenerate hometown friends, he’s able to train and control a trusted team of apostles hungry to carry out his word.
As a CEO, Belfort takes to the pulpit and addresses his staff like a preacher at a revival. It’s difficult not to get swept up in the charisma and passion of his many speeches. Belfort’s expletive-laced homilies embolden his flock by extolling the virtues of wealth and instilling the belief that anyone in the room who wants it enough can attain his level of wealth through hard work and determination. In these scenes, it’s easy to see how a man with his conviction could amass so many devotees. It’s easy to overlook the 1,500 known fraud victims, many of whom middle-class Americans who lost their life savings, that he still owes tens of millions of dollars.
“But what do I love when I love my God?”Augustus of Hippo
Belfort’s recklessness isn’t reserved for his victims. It’s an innate flaw in his character and he’s successful in spite of it. Belfort and Stratton Oakmont co-founder Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill as dramedy Adam Sandler) decide to celebrate the successful transfer of cash to an offshore bank account by taking rare and powerful Lemmon 714 Quaaludes. What ensues is Belfort in his purest form, a man finding his way into increasingly compromised positions through progressively careless choices.
The magic of Wolf of Wall Street is in how Scorcese manages to construct the film without judgment. While heightened for the movie, the salaciousness of the story is factual. Belfort lived this life. People worship money. Wealthy men, no matter their integrity, are lionized and their victims are accepted as the means to a worthy end. And your reaction to this story is a reflection of who you are and what you worship.