The Wolf of Wall Street and the American Dream: "That Vulture the Very Creature We Create"
Martin Scorsese’s filthy but never disgusting The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the best films of the year. The controversy surrounding the film sparked quite the Internet debate, but all this is telling of our inability to wrap our minds around the paradoxical nature of the film. Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com says it best when he writes that the film, “is abashed and shameless, exciting and exhausting, disgusting and illuminating.” The film is about obscene people and practices, but it is not obscene. The film is a raucous comedy that somehow manages to infuse every laugh with hilarity and tragedy. The film speaks right to the heart of shifting attitudes in America right now regarding one percent excess, and it extends an open hand to audience members to either laugh and come along for the ride or to reject the hand seeing through the tyrannous façade.
Jordan Belfort is a man who not only believes he is smarter than most in the room, but actually is a man who is smarter than most in the room and knows it. He thrives off of this egomaniacal power and sly manipulation to always have the upper hand and to always have the last laugh. That’s primarily what is at the center of the Internet debates surrounding the film. Were Scorsese and DiCaprio duped into believing Belfort’s memoir was actually a cautionary tale? Scorsese and DiCaprio are too smart for that, and it is my belief that Belfort’s hubris is what makes him believe he is the winner here. Whether Belfort’s book is a cautionary tale or not, Scorsese has made a cautionary tale and so much more. He isn’t telling Belfort’s story--he is telling the story of America, and Belfort happened to fit the kind of story he wanted to tell. Each critic who thinks Belfort has the winning hand and is smarter and keener than Scorsese and DiCaprio is the air compressor further puffing Belfort up with pride. The marvel of The Wolf of Wall Street is that it manages to appear seemingly celebratory of Belfort’s lifestyle, but every scene also has an ominous howling indictment.
DiCaprio is at his absolute best. I don’t know how else to say it. Here we have one of the greatest working actors of our time at the top of his game giving a thrilling powerhouse performance. His boldness and commitment to such a role needs be commended for. Terence Winter, the film’s screenwriter, has created a character for DiCaprio that is one of the most layered roles for a male actor in recent memory. In one of Belfort’s enthralling monologues he tells his team of associates that the sales script he gives them will be the harpoon to spear the Moby Dicks of their clients just like Captain Ahab. What is brilliant about this writing is that Winter has created a character that is tremendously intelligent, but blunderingly blind to his own hubris that he doesn’t realize using a simile such as this is a self fulfilling prophecy for his own destruction. Belfort thinks he’s a learned man by making a reference to the great American novel that those in the room didn’t catch, but at this moment he’s already speared himself.
This contributes to his downfall, as a further reading of Captain Ahab will present:
“But as the mind does not exist unless leagued with the soul, therefore it must have been that, in Ahab’s case, yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own. Nay, could grimly live and burn, while the common vitality to which it was conjoined, fled horror-stricken from the unbidden and unfathered birth. Therefore, the tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes, when what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to color, and therefore a blankness in itself. God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates” (Melville, 226).
Belfort’s desire for greed becomes parasitic in nature and will never stop because as his thoughts are determined and aimed at this one idea, his pursuit of money—to be on top, this being he creates will continue to grow and allow the torment in his spirit to feed on his soul until he has more and more. It’s a cyclical pattern of addiction. It’s why at the end of his “resignation” monologue he decides he’s not leaving. As one FBI agent says, “The whale’s back in the ocean.” Because of his relentless pride and arrogance he is eventually caught. As he sits in a room with lawyers about to be indicted for his scandal we see a picture of President Clinton who also was embedded in a scandal of his own.
After Belfort did his laughable time in prison, he became a motivational speaker for his “Straight Line” persuasion program, committed to helping others become successful in sales. There really isn’t much evidence that the real Jordan Belfort is a changed man.
Scorsese asks of his audience and asks of America if we will be changed men. His film depicts Belfort’s lifestyle as true for all Americans. Somehow or another we have been manipulated and have bought in to the lie of the American Dream. Men like Belfort have sold us the sales pitch, and our mouths still salivate at the idea of becoming the big man. We salivate at the idea of fame and fortune, celebrity and excess. Our pursuit of the American Dream has become “that vulture the very creature [we] create.”
Scorsese’s film holds out this Beggin’ strip for his viewers, taunting them to see if they will recognize that it’s not real bacon. I suspect many who find this film hilarious, which it is, find it funny because that lifestyle seems appealing to them. They still hold that dream that one day they can be successful like Belfort without getting caught as he did. Scorsese and DiCaprio ask of the keen audience members to see through this and begin the conversation America should have been having long ago. We need films like The Wolf Wall Street because if the conversation is not had, scenes of Agent Denham on the subway with the poor and minorities oblivious to the white collar crime surrounding them and unequal access for opportunity will continue to exist. If the conversation is not had, men like Belfort will continue to howl in their debauchery and excess.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale. New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.