On the red carpet last night, over the roar of screaming crowds, one of the celebrities who inspired them described his attraction to Wolf of Wall Street. "I just became completely obsessed with Jordan Belfort's novel. It's kind of a, you know, a film about our times. It's about wealth and this idealistic image that we have of money. And I wanted to put this culture up on screen," Leonardo DiCaprio explained.
Belfort's book, a memoir and not a novel, still might have been his most creative work. His firm, Stratton Oakmont, doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel. Instead, it goes with a classic pump and dump scheme: buying worthless stocks cheap, driving the prices up by pitching them to hapless clients, and then selling high, making a healthy profit while costing its investors everything. What makes Belfort's behavior uniquely horrifying is the complete and utter disdain he exhibits toward those investors, whose interests he has promised to serve. When Belfort secures a large sum from a client over speakerphone, he silently mouths expletives in his direction, gesturing obscenely at the faceless voice for an audience of giddy brokers.
In Belfort's world these people are not victims, they are suckers who deserve to be had. In a twisted form of system justification theory, he is most ruthless in his dealings with his richest clients. Pride in one's own vast wealth must stem from some sense of deservedness, a sense that is undermined by the very existence of people who are both rich and stupid. Of course Belfort feels no shame about his flagrant violations of the law; it is his investors who ought to be ashamed for being dumb enough to trust him. The invisible hand of the market is giving them the finger.
Belfort openly acknowledges how central wealth is to his overarching moral philosophies, if one can even categorize them as such. He would, in fact, have us believe that his gross misdeeds are driven purely by a literal addiction to money. But he seems to be addicted instead to admiration and respect. When he walks into an amateurish investor center looking for a job after getting utterly destroyed on Black Monday, a downtrodden Belfort is visibly irked when he must remind his new boss of his name. "My name? Jor-dan Bel-fort," he says forcefully, flinching with anger ever so slightly. Later, he learns from his private investigator that he has caught the attention of FBI agent Patrick Denham. Arguing that the investigation is limited in scope, the PI explains that none of his contacts have heard of Belfort.
"Nobody even knows you exist," he tells him.
"They don't know I exist? That's good," Belfort replies, promising not to attract further attention by reaching out to Denham personally.
The movie's next scene? Belfort welcoming Denham aboard his flashy yacht, where he presents him with lobster, prostitutes, and a massive bribe, all of which Denham refuses with gusto. When Belfort eventually concludes that it is in his best legal and, more importantly, financial, interests to resign, he takes the stage at his firm to bid his employees farewell. But, looking out at the sea of affectionate and approving faces, hearing them tearfully express their love for him, he can't bring himself to do it.
"I wanted to put this culture up on screen," DiCaprio said. Really? I can't possibly think of a worse thing to do than provide a massive ego boost for a man who needs anything but. (When you have no moral compass, is there really any difference between notoriety and fame?) It's unlikely that Belfort will be reminding us of his name any time soon, and we all now know he exists. But he seems too easy a target, his behavior too buffoonishly and obviously unethical, for a condemnation of him to have any significance beyond precisely that.
Frankly, icons like DiCaprio have some nerve trying to level such a critique to begin with. He accepted the Golden Globe for his portrayal of Belfort moments before he sauntered on stage and shot an approving thumbs up at the show's hosts. "Like a supermodel's vagina, please give a warm welcome to Leonardo DiCaprio," they'd just implored the crowd. Sunday, the elitest of the Hollywood elite donned their designer gowns and tuxes to be broadcast live into millions of households as they lauded themselves for exposing the grotesque and horrifying excess of Belfort's world. And then did what? Retreated back into their relatively modest and understated lives? It takes a special kind of obliviousness not to see the irony.
Recently, Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw compared high-earning movie stars to high-earning financiers, calling our respect for the former and disdain for the latter an inconsistency. Dissenters pointed out that, unlike brokers and their ilk, actors' fortunes stem from their creation of cultural products that we are willing to pay to see. But these people are not just getting paid to act. They are getting paid to endorse products, give interviews, and make appearances. Not to mention that the large sums they are paid to act are as much a testament to their intangible "star power" as their actual talent or abilities.
That this is anything other than a basic pump and dump seems absurd. We make large investments in the form of time and attention, on the basis of a highly artificial and manufactured relationship with a movie star who wields outsize power and influence. The machine of celebrity is certainly a profitable one, and we are just as certainly not the ones getting paid. The fact that we don't resent this simply reveals the extent to which we've been duped.
"There is no nobility in poverty," Belfort tells the men and women of Stratton during one of his perverted pep talks. But is there nobility in obscurity? What's the greater moral failure, that we made Belfort rich or that we made him a star? The most common motif of Wolf consists not of sex, drugs, or violence, but shots of Belfort's back as he addresses an adoring audience of employees, partygoers, and, when he eventually reinvents himself as a motivational speaker, students eager to learn. The final images of the movie are faces of a rapturous crowd, watching him. They could just as easily be of us, and the same hopeful, expectant expressions we wore last night when we, glued to our screens, watched them. So who are the suckers now?