He might be one of Hollywood’s most renowned filmmakers, but Martin Scorsese is not untouchable, not by any means. His latest production, The Wolf of Wall Street, has come under much scrutiny for glamourising drugs, sex, and lewd, libidinous lifestyles. The film tells the true story of Jordan Belfort – played by Leonardo DiCaprio – a self-made millionaire who made his fortune manipulating naive investors, and spent the majority of his cash on leisure and luxury.
Christina McDowell, who is the real life daughter of one of Belfort’s associates, had an open letter published in LA Weekly, where she accused the filmmakers of “glorifying greed and psychopathic behaviour” amongst many other unethical things. However, to be frank, it seems that McDowell has missed the point somewhat – because this film doesn’t glamourise this type of lifestyle at all. In fact, it presents it as the repellent, seedy environment it was – a sentiment echoed by DiCaprio himself, who has had to release a statement on how the film does not condone such a livelihood.
There’s a seedy, superficial undercurrent prevalent in this title, as everything feels overstated, immoderate and overelaborate. It never quite feels real – Scorsese has depicted life so effervescently, it’s not a naturalistic piece of cinema by any means. Ultimately, this is a comedy and the farcical nature gives this film the feeling of a lavish, grandiose Broadway musical, almost surrealistic in its approach. It’s not attempting to be searingly authentic, this is cinema – and Scorsese knows what he’s doing. It seems that with success and critical acclaim (which The Wolf of Wall Street has had in abundance), people are always incensed into offering a counter argument.
There’s a sinister edge to Belfort too – displayed immaculately by DiCaprio – and this frivolous spending of money isn’t just good fun, it’s an addiction. You get the impression that he’s not just wanting to spend all of his money on extravagance and splendour, but he feels he needs to. The cocaine habit itself is a physical dependancy, of course, but the lust to live out this particular lifestyle – similar to Tony Montana in Scarface, for instance – is the true addiction. Belfort still, to this very day, lectures on financial gain, as it’s a life he can’t seem to leave behind, as he continues to sell his wisdom to members of the public in the same way he used to sell shares.
Another rather unglamorous element to The Wolf of Wall Street, is the fact his shady ongoings are not legal, and the FBI get wind of his criminal activity, and there’s a foreboding atmosphere created as a result. Of course when Belfort and his colleague Donnie (Jonah Hill) are on an aeroplane, taking drugs at free will, with an array of naked women roaming the aisles, it is glorified. Because in that moment, it’s wonderful. In Trainspotting when our protagonist takes heroin, it’s displayed as being something otherworldly, something spectacular. But look at the bigger picture – look at what it does to his mental (and physical) health in the long term. The Wolf of Wall Street manages much of the same thing: yes it may be all fun and games, but inevitably it will all come crashing down at some point, and as the FBI’s investigation gets more intense, suddenly those lavish, mile high moments seem like a lifetime ago.
The element of fear does not automatically put people off, however, as the public still crave this lifestyle, in spite of how Scorsese portrays it to us. For example, when Belfort’s unprincipled, iniquitous ways are divulged in a magazine article, it was met with an array of fresh job applications of people wanting to work for him. Even the fact that now, long after Belfort’s four year prison sentence, people still pay to hear him speak at conferences, as this lust for money and luxury still exists. So when that’s taken into account, is Scorsese adorning or embellishing real life? Surely as a filmmaker he has a responsibility to portray real life, no matter how cinematically, and he’s not dressing up this excessive, flamboyant vocation as anything it’s not. Though he may be accused of treating the source material somewhat flippantly and frivolously – sometimes a comedy can be the most powerful of satires, just look at The King of Comedy, for example. Was that glorifying kidnapping?
So I’m conning innocent people, making loads of money, having an amazing time in my massive yacht, and spending what’s left of it on drugs and prostitutes. Then I’m going to lose absolutely everything dear to me, spend a few years in prison, and spend the rest of my years feeling lonely and regretful. Woohoo! Money!