In 2003, the American Film Institute ranked Gordon Gekko, the ruthless corporate raider played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 film Wall Street, as the 24th greatest movie villain of all time. But in an interview with WNYC, Douglas recounted how drunk stockbrokers would sometimes approach him in restaurants and tell him that Gekko, despite the character's eventual conviction for insider trading, inspired them to get into the finance business. The fact that a criminal who declared, "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good," and boasted, "I create nothing! I own," could be seen as a hero says much about the ethics and values of Wall Street, but it didn't stop reporters in 2008 from asking Douglas if he feels his character is partially responsible for inspiring the mindset of the Wall Street denizens who caused the latest financial meltdown -- as if Wall Street was the most fair, honest, and humble place in the world until Gekko hit movie screens.
As ridiculous as it seems, the Wall Street/Hollywood chicken-or-the-egg blame game has started again with The Wolf of Wall Street, which some critics and commentators have claimed glorifies and encourages the runaway excesses, greed, and law breaking it depicts in telling the story of real-life penny stock scammer Jordan Belfort. But is showing bad behavior the same as endorsing it? And do Wall Street douchebags really need any encouragement to pursue fabulous wealth and runaway hedonism at the cost of their souls? Watch my ReThink Review of The Wolf of Wall Street below (transcript following).
The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the memoir of Jordan Belfort, a former stockbroker who started a brokerage firm called Stratton Oakmont in the 1990s and became fabulously rich peddling penny stocks to unwitting buyers before being convicted of securities fraud and money laundering. The film, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Belfort, is a three-hour, drug-fueled, surprisingly funny odyssey that earns its hard R rating by unflinchingly depicting the immorality, depravity, cruelty, misogyny, arrogance, lawlessness, and, above all else, the downright greed of a Wall Street culture run amok, where amassing wealth justifies anything and everything. However, some, including the daughter of one of Belfort's convicted associates, have claimed that in depicting this behavior, the filmmakers and the film are endorsing and celebrating it -- a charge I think misses the entire point of this excellent, important film.
First, aren't we over the idea that showing a bad behavior is the same as endorsing it? If so, I guess we should get rid of TV shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Mad Men, as well as any movies involving the mob, heists, prison breaks, vigilantes, drug use, extramarital affairs, or any other illegal or questionable behavior, even if those committing them are never held up as being good people deserving of our admiration.
And make no mistake -- despite being the film's main character, Jordan Belfort is never made out to be any kind of hero. He takes mountains of drugs, cheats on his first and second wives with prostitutes, swindles unsuspecting investors, breaks the law, and endangers the lives of several people, including his young daughter. The original group of guys Belfort starts Stratton Oakmont with (played by Jonah Hill, P.J. Byrne, Jon Bernthal, Kenneth Choi, Ethan Suplee, Henry Zebrowski, and Brian Zacca) are described as drug dealers, idiots, and degenerates who are at least as depraved as Belfort. In fact, the only thing a person could find even remotely admirable about Belfort and his crew is their devotion to excess, the pursuit of riches, and each other.
The problem isn't that the filmmakers have made the world of Wall Street debauchery look seductive, but that it IS seductive -- where if you can stomach the idea of screwing people over, you can live like a rock star. In that sense, the issue with The Wolf of Wall Street shouldn't be with the movie or the filmmakers, but with the world it depicts -- and more importantly, the twisted quasi-religious philosophy that fuels it.
While many religions teach us to celebrate the poor, Belfort proclaims that there's no nobility in poverty and that it's money, not God, that will solve your problems and make you a better person. That being rich is the kingdom of heaven we're all striving for, but it's only the chosen -- meaning the clever or ruthless -- who will get there. The world of Stratton Oakmont is portrayed as a cult, with money as God and Belfort as the charismatic high priest giving rousing sermons telling his congregation that if they follow his instructions, he'll take them to the Promised Land. And, as in religion, any transgression, including rampant drug use and mistreatment of women, can be justified if it supposedly serves God's will.
At one point, Belfort proclaims, "Stratton Oakmont is America!" The Wolf of Wall Street did not create or endorse the corrupt culture and lifestyle it depicts, but simply pulls if from the shadows and puts it on display. If this inspires people to follow Belfort's example, the issue isn't the film, but the country and culture that would create anyone so greedy and depraved that they would see Belfort as someone to emulate. But the film smartly doesn't let anyone off the hook, recognizing that all of us, in our heart of hearts, would love to get rich quick and live by whatever rules we create for ourselves. Whether a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street exists or not, the world and values it portrays are very real, and the proof of it is all around us, amplified and rewarded by our own government. And that's what we should be mad about.