“Now you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy are you, buddy? It’s a free market and you’re a part of it” –Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987)
“At the end of the game, you count up your money. That’s how you find out who's best. It's the only way.” –Bert Gordon, The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) starts with an ad for Stratton Oakmont; the commercial makes us believe the brokerage firm is a golden American institution, a pillar of financial stability, as traditional, trustworthy, and established as if the Mayflower passengers had etched the very name into Plymouth Rock. Cut to the nightmarish circus of a rollicking party on the trading floor of the company—not unlike what we’ve imagined went on in Rome before the fall (all but the roller-skating chimp and snorting coke off hookers, of course)—and then freeze-frame on the billionaire brokers tossing a dwarf at a huge velcro target, literally and figuratively abusing the Little Guy. Stratton Oakmont is America, its founder proudly proclaims in the ad. How horrifying is it to realize that he just might be right?
The tale that follows the fictional commercial amounts to a nonstop barrage of drug-fueled decadence adapted by Terence Winter from real-life stockbroking swindler Jordan Belfort’s memoir. The book is a distant relative of the truth, it’s been said, and the film is a distant relative of the book. The humorous, “honest” movie poster of The Wolf of Wall Street created by Uproxx titles the movie “Scarface for Douchebags.” Although obviously meant as a joke, the film’s framing as a crime movie points to the many parallels between Scorsese’s film and the gangster genre, and raises the question, is Belfort even worse than the cinematic mobsters the director seems to draw inspiration from? The filmmaker might be the best cinematic connoisseur of charismatic sociopaths, and Henry Hill or Nicky Santoro ain’t got nothing on Leonardo DiCaprio’s titular wolf. The film’s brokers are avatars of an age of heedless self-indulgence and greed, gangsters with fountain pens instead of guns, slicing and dicing your bank account and putting your savings in a vise rather than your head.
It has long been accepted that the mob has always been a cinematic stand-in for the underside of American capitalism. As Frederic Jameson eloquently puts it in “Reification and Utopia,”
“When indeed we reflect on an organized conspiracy against the public, one which reaches into every corner of our daily lives and our political structures to exercise a wanton ecocidal and genocidal violence at the behest of distant decision-makers and in the name of an abstract conception of profit—surely it is not about the Mafia, but rather about American business itself that we are thinking, American capitalism at its most systemized and computerized, dehumanized, ‘multinational’ and corporate form” (145).
Parts of this essay have appeared previously in my review of The Wolf of Wall Street.