“Money makes you a better person.” That’s one of the earliest lessons about finance we’re taught by Jordan Belfort, protagonist of The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s profane epic of stock fraud, the systemic abuse of America’s financial institutions, and ruling class avarice; he utters the words in voice-over as he walks the floor of Stratton Oakmont, the combination frat house-boiler room he has founded for the purpose of tactically persuading people into parting ways with their money . You don’t necessarily need to have seen the film to appreciate the obvious irony, but nevertheless, over the two and a half hours that follow this little revelation, Scorsese debunks the man’s outrageous claim to the utmost of his abilities.
Belfort’s delusion lies at the center of 2013’s most pervasive cinematic theme: greed, as legendary philistine Gordon Gekko told us over two decades ago, is good. Wall Street’s ideas freshly resonate today as the U.S. economy struggles to recover from the financial catastrophe following the U.S. housing bubble’s burst in 2005, and the subsequent financial crisis triggered between 2007 and 2008 (to say nothing of the ongoing global recession). With money weighing heavily on our cultural consciousness, it’s only natural that this collective anxiety should be be reflected in the movies of the year: Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, and Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. (Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium and Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire are also worth noting, though these movies’ dystopian settings and themes place them outside the orbit of the other, simpler, more avarice-dominated films.)
Now Scorsese’s picture, which opened on Christmas day, joins the fray with brio and vim following last week’s premiere of David O. Russell’s similarly themed American Hustle. Among this thematic assault, Scorsese’s stands out as the most significant; in just a minute under three hours, his film manages to encapsulate every single flourish of excess, every manner of gluttony, every display of covetousness seen in the thematic cousins that preceded it in 2013. There’s no appalling, transgressive act committed by Spring Breakers’ Alien, the petty criminalistas of The Bling Ring, the hordes of revelers in Gatsby, or the members of Blue Jasmine’s societal elite that doesn’t echo throughout the telling of Jordan Belfort’s unbelievable and yet true story.
For all of the similarities these characters share with Belfort and his cadre of boiler room charlatans, though, he exemplifies one single quality that he alone holds over everyone else: the agency of more. Belfort’s home is more lavish, his parties more extravagant (Belfort’s orgiastic riots make Gatsby’s soirées look like backyard barbecues by comparison), his “stuff” more plentiful, his high life higher, his basic humanity more questionable. None of his 2013 predecessors have anything on him. He’s their king. Arguably, he sketched the blueprint for the over-the-top lifestyle that they all feel they deserve; if Irving Rosenfeld, the lead character in American Hustle, did it first, Belfort does it better, and unlike Rosenfeld, he’s willing to share his knowledge with others and educate them on the ins and outs of swindling the gullible masses.
That’s arguably the most magnanimous gesture Belfort makes over the course of The Wolf of Wall Street’s substantial running time: through his self-produced instructional video, seen toward the end of the film, he selflessly teaches generations of callous, shallow scumbags, both old and young, the unscrupulous virtues of putting personal gain before the well being of others. Ultimately, Belfort’s infomercial just reinforces his vanity and piggishness, so even if he’s egotistical enough to think that he’s actually helping anybody (and he almost certainly is), he’s still out for number one. (That Scorsese elects to stage Belfort’s arrest at the hands of the FBI during the filming of this video is somewhat telling; after graphically documenting all of Belfort’s libidinal and criminal exploits throughout the film, it’s at this point that the director might be considered to finally step in and say “enough,” providing at least a temporarily halt to Belfort’s schemes and chastisement for his misdeeds.)
The series of vapid entreaties Belfort pitches to his at-home audience sound all too familiar: they provide a foundation for the attitudes held by the doomed, corrupt heroes of Wolf’s screen cousins. Belfort’s enterprises as a self-help guru echo Pain & Gain’s Johnny Wu, the man whose insipid “get rich quick” workshop hinges on one very nonsensical one-liner (“Don’t be a don’t-er, do be a doer!”), inspires Daniel Lugo to set out and extort, torture, and murder his way to untold riches. Belfort uses the same macho verbiage as a motivational tool, shaming people by telling them how disgustingly weak they are for not seizing the day and becoming millionaires like him. That’s the most central tenet of his dogma—if you’re not already moneyed, you can only blame yourself, and frankly, you’re not much good without it—and also the secret meaning to the opening quote. Money doesn’t make you better; it makes you socially viable.
We know that the purpose of movies like The Wolf of Wall Street is to expose ideologies like this as rapacious bunk, of course, but Scorsese’s film has a slightly different take on it: money, and the status symbols you can buy with it, only make you a person concerned about money. Belfort himself is perhaps the best example of this—nearly every decision he makes in The Wolf of Wall Street directly relates to its impact on his profits—but none of these films are about the process of acquiring wealth in any and all of its forms; they’re about what people do after they acquire it. Unsurprisingly, they try to obtain even more, riches for riches’ sake, because there’s no such thing as “enough.” Prosperity is an arms race to these people.
Take the high school bandits of The Bling Ring, Pain & Gain’s Sun Gym gang, or the beach party thugettes of Spring Breakers. Neither group has a cutoff point where their need to steal—either from other teens on spring break, or from lackadaisical mega-celebrities—is sated. They’re predisposed to continue their relentless pursuit of the American dream with no other goal in mind than to keep robbing people. No endgame waits for them on the horizon; their pleasure may derive more from the act than from the objects they amass with each incident, though gazing on the fruits of their labors at least appears to tickle them on some level or another. Their loot is symbolic; it’s proof of status, evidence that they’ve “made it.”
That’s exactly how Belfort treats his ill-gotten gains, too, and precisely how he continues to exist once he’s attained his pinnacle of success. He lives above the world, quite literally. Whether in his high-rise apartment, his gargantuan yacht, or his Olympian real estate properties—his Hamptons estate and his beach side palace—Belfort sets himself apart from his fellow man. But even that’s not his target—he simply wants to keep earning cash to fill his coffers. If not for the timely intervention of the FBI, spearheaded by incorruptible agent Patrick Denham, there’s no telling what standing Belfort might have attained in the pantheon of America’s super rich.
Yet in portraying Belfort’s downfall, Scorsese does something none of his peers do in their own movies: he brings the reality of wealth-powered privilege to life. Where the protagonists of Spring Breakers, Blue Jasmine, and the rest each meet fates punctuated in turn by destitution, despondency, discomfiture, and in some cases death, Belfort emerges relatively unscathed after facing judgment. We rarely see him suffer the consequences for his crimes, and when we do, they don’t seem so bad. (Playing tennis at Club Fed is certainly better than jibbering to strangers on a park bench or being gunned down in a swimming pool.) Belfort’s cohorts end up receiving the brunt of the FBI’s justice. And while agent Denham takes that lonely train ride home, echoing the first conversation he and Jordan have earlier in the film, Belfort goes right on selling, ready to bounce back after ratting out his supposed friends.
That, more than anything, is what gives Belfort so much dominance over his contemporaries. In the year’s colorful bricolage of greed, he’s the last man standing. It’s a testament to the depths of his cupidity that by the time The Wolf of Wall Street ends, he’s still out in the world making a dishonest buck; in the end, being rich really does make everything better. Gekko’s iconic words prove unsettlingly true, though from behind the camera Scorsese uses his drug-fueled, cash-flush parable to make an indictment of the inherent (and constantly growing) inequity between the haves and the have-nots.
The message is clear: you can evade any real penalty for your crimes if you have enough capital, even when convicted of them in a court of law. (It’s worth noting that Spring Breakers’ Brit and Candy both literally get away with murder, so maybe Belfort isn’t totally nonpareil.) That’s the ultimate realization of Belfort’s American dream—the ability to write your own ticket. Years after his atrocities were brought before the courts, Belfort hasn’t been meaningfully punished for his atavistic behavior in the real world. Scorsese’s failure to do so in his film, then, simply mirrors the truth: All of the money in the world won’t make you into a better person, but it will buy you a stack of Get Out of Jail Free cards.