12/31/2013 12:37 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2014

The Scorsese Principle of Deliberative Democracy

Victoria Will/Invision/AP

What to make of the last five seconds of The Wolf of Wall Street? A punchline? After 180 minutes of gaping at Leonardo DiCaprio's mesmerizing portrayal of a sybaritic stock swindler, the last frame shows an audience mesmerized, gaping at a sybaritic stock swindler. Of course in movie-land, that audience is supposedly watching Jordan Belfort, baron of the boiler room. It's Leo I'm gaping at, but then comes the rimshot: a black screen with one credit in bold, white lettering -- "Based on The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort."

That's when the afterimage of those moony faces begins to haunt you. To audiences everywhere, they whisper, "Guess who."

Admittedly, I went to The Wolf of Wall Street ready to get mad about avarice and plutocracy (here's to you, college). But when I pulled the ticket stub from my pocket on the way to the car, I wasn't mad at Jordan Belfort; I was mad at myself. I was mad for positively relishing the equal and opposite of schadenfreude: Pleasure derived not from another's misfortune, but from their libertinage. I get the same rush from hip hop, but at least when a rapper brags about ripping off the underclasses, drugged-out benders and general whoredom, it's always a little tongue-in-cheek. (Lest we forget that masterpiece of nouveau riche irony, Wu Tang Financial.) But apparently this Belfort guy was the real O.G.: Money-stacking, pill-popping, yacht-crashing, dwarf-tossing, how-many-orifices-can-you-possibly-stuff-cocaine-into -- Lil Wayne looks like Milhouse beside him.

In 2004, Scorsese/DiCaprio gave us the rise and fall of the world's wealthiest man in The Aviator. This film runs parallel, but ultimately has less interesting things to say about its apparent subject, Jordan Belfort, than it does about Americans' peculiar fascination with amoral ultra-aristocrats doing their thing -- to us, to each other, most of all to themselves. As in 2011's Hugo, Scorsese's art is here a kind of feature-length dream sequence; for generations of Ivy League frat boys, The Wolf of Wall Street will be a decidedly wet one. But even those of us who scorn the lurid spectacles of late capitalism can get in touch with something perversely thrilling here: Watching someone else ditch morality for the sake of getting good at being bad cannot but expand one's sense of what people are capable of.

The Wolf of Wall Street is, at any rate, a welcome departure from the last wave of financial crisis cinema -- The Company Men, Too Big to Fail, Margin Call, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps -- films whose narrative logic seemed borrowed from the zombie apocalypse genre: Everything is f*cked. Those movies lamented an atrophied State unable to protect its citizens from a few Monopoly men. Their execution was often heavy-handed, as if the American Dream needed yet another bucket of ice water. Here, the white-collar-criminals-gone-wild routine is no less cartoonish -- some of these scenes would make Baz Luhrmann blush -- but at least we've been invited to watch the party.

Which made me think back to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when newspaper columnists got a lot of mileage out of the Roman poet Juvenal's concern about who is watching the watchers. "Nobody" was the answer for liberals who clamored for government intervention on pain of collapse. Conservatives, in turn, warned against an infinite regress of regulators regulating regulators, corrupt bureaucrats all, sucking down tax dollars and ultimately slowing America's gravy train.

Since then, the choice between ruin by too much government or not enough of it has turned out to be a false one; history has gone the way of neither/nor. A few bankers were frogmarched into Congress for some really hard-hitting questions, fines were paid and the Justice Department brought charges against two executives from Bear Stearns (both were acquitted).

Compare that to the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s (when "too big to fail" was coined): 1,100 criminal prosecutions were brought against those involved in major savings and loan fraud. When the smoke cleared, 839 corrupt banking officials went to prison. How much good that did ultimately depends on your sense of fidelity to criminal justice. As long as there's meat in the kitchen, there will be wolves will at the door.

But for now, with so many Americans still floundering after the 2008 waves of recession and unemployment, the bubble bursting, bankruptcies, bailouts, foreclosures and evictions, it seems that one course of action satisfactory to both parties is punishment for the culprits. (Here is a comprehensive report on why there have not been more high-profile prosecutions and a few recommendations for how to get started.) After all, when it comes to curbing predatory behavior on a shoestring, getting a little Draconian goes a long way.

The important thing is that the buck doesn't stop at public officials, but with the rest of us. Don't take my word for it. It was the economist Leonid Hurwicz, not me, who considered Juvenal's question in his 2007 Nobel Prize Lecture:

For instance, suppose voters remove a corrupt official from office. The next newly-elected official, out of rational self-interest, might refrain from corrupt practices, given that the people had demonstrated their willingness to remove him or her from office based on such practices. This does not require an infinite regress of dishonest guardians, merely an aroused public, exhibiting rational self-interest.

The trouble is that last week, my own calculus of rational self-interest took me out to the movies, not to Zuccotti Park. I was aroused, but for all the wrong reasons. I was, alas, a watcher: too comfy in the plush seating, too dazzled by the screen to do much more than sit at my desk and write this afterward. For a montage of some Wall Street has-been's morning-after hearsay, I actually spent three hours, 10 dollars and 50 cents. And I enjoyed it.

Mr. Scorsese has been called out for glamorizing financial fraud. I'd like to think he's given us a crash course in deliberative democracy. Casually, then, I posit the Scorsese Principle: It isn't the wolves of Wall Street we should be frightened of. It's the sheep.