‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ and an Audience of Sheep


Written by Leigh Kolb.

At the end of The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) gives a motivational sales speech to an audience. The audience members stare at him, slack-jawed, trying to absorb his infinite sales “wisdom.”

They are revering and listening to a criminal–a man who had been indicted and served time for fraud.

The problem with Martin Scorsese’s treatment of the real Jordan Belfort autobiography isn’t the misogyny. It isn’t the drugs, or the perceived celebration of excess.

Instead, the problem with The Wolf of Wall Street is those slack-jawed (or cheering) audiences who don’t seem to understand that this is meant to be a post-modern morality play. The fact that Scorsese doesn’t adequately “punish” Jordan in the film is necessary, because Jordan wasn’t adequately punished in real life 

That audience at the end of the film? That’s us.

[caption id="attachment_7759" align="aligncenter" width="343"]This. (Image via College Humor.) This. (Image via College Humor.)[/caption]


I suppose it’s easy to miss that, since an aspect of America that’s as important as bootstraps and apple pie is to whitewash a white history that’s been written–or rewritten–by greedy white men. When Jordan says to his staff, “Stratton Oakmont is America,” he wasn’t, as he typically was, full of shit. That was one of the truest statements in the film.

From a feminist perspective, I can understand that the three-hours of objectified and largely one-dimensional female characters can seem overwhelming and disappointing. However, how do we think Jordan Belfort sees women? How do we think Wall Street treated/treats women? Feminists should want to be shown and disgusted by this, because we are supposed to be disgusted with everything in Jordan’s world. Our ire should be pointed toward audiences who don’t get it.

But even if we are adequately critical of the reality of Jordan Belfort’s story, how much can we expect from audiences who, like the audience at the end of the film, want at some level to know Jordan’s secrets?

[caption id="attachment_7760" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Cheers. Cheers.[/caption]


The real tragedy in The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t that it doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. The tragedy of this film is that it is so real, and that Jordan Belfort is out there, making money, granting interviews, selling his sales techniques, and gaining more and more followers. The reality is what makes me nauseous, not Scorsese and DiCaprio’s treatment of reality. What sent me over the edge was going home and googling “Jordan Belfort,” and then checking my bank account. This is surely how we are supposed to respond–with rage at the injustice of not just Belfort’s case, but also the insidious untouchability of the 1 percent.

In an excellent interview with Deadline, DiCaprio (who also was a producer) says,

I wanted to make an unapologetic film looking at a character in a very entertaining and funny way, and isn’t passing judgment on them but is saying, look, this is obviously a cautionary tale, and what is it that creates people like this? I thought that could somehow be a mirror to ourselves….

That theme has been prevalent in Marty’s work, since Mean Streets. It’s about the pursuit of the American dream, about the re-creation of oneself to achieve that dream, and the hustle that it takes to get there. I see that theme in so many of his films. He’s talking about a darker side of our culture in all these movies, and yet he’s vigilant about not passing judgment on them. He leaves that up to the audience. That’s why it boggles my mind a bit that anyone would ever not realize this is an indictment of that world.

The intent of the filmmakers is clear, and it’s reflected on screen. The humor and lack of judgment has more to do with our culture than with the story itself. And again, if audiences either cheer, or laugh heartily throughout Wolf of Wall Street–they are essentially celebrating a culture that allows this kind of story to happen. If audiences condemn the film itself, I would hope they would instead focus their condemnation on a culture that allows this kind of story to happen and leads audiences to cheer.

[caption id="attachment_7761" align="aligncenter" width="500"]In reality, there’s just a little bit of this… In reality, there’s just a little bit of this…[/caption]


[caption id="attachment_7762" align="aligncenter" width="347"]…and then more of this. (But only 22 months of a four-year sentence.) …and then more of this. (But only 22 months of a four-year sentence.)[/caption]


As the audience at the end of the film is trying to learn something from Jordan Belfort (while further lining his pockets), there’s a distinct sense of hopelessness. DiCaprio points out:

“As we are progressing into the future, things are moving faster and we are way more destructive than we’ve ever been. We have not evolved at all.”

The Wolf of Wall Street is a great film, and features incredible acting. It’s flashy, it’s shiny, it luxuriates in excess while we watch, stunned, powerless. And until we evolve, people will always be laughing and cheering, while desperately seeking Jordan Belfort’s advice.

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Leigh Kolb is a composition, literature and journalism instructor at a community college in rural Missouri. 


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