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by Bryce J. Renninger
December 27, 2013 2:44 PM
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Just How Much Does Scorsese's 'Wolf of Wall Street' Glorify the 1%? Discuss.

As critics and those involved with the dealings of Jordan Belfort see Martin Scorsese's much-lauded latest, a number of people are raising their voices to criticize exactly how "The Wolf of Wall Street" tells history. 

Or to put it another way: If history is written by the victors, what does it mean when Belfort's memoir is the source material?  

Belfort, the skeezy hero of "The Wolf of Wall Street," pursued money recklessly, which earned him nights of sexy, drugged-up debauchery and a short jail sentence. It definitely did not cost him his life savings, as it did for some of the people he convinced to invest.  (TIME Magazine did a line by line check of the film's most ridiculous moments, finding that Scorsese didn't deviate too far from the source.)

READ MORE: Real Life Hasn't Punished Jordan Belfort. Why Should 'The Wolf of Wall Street'?

One line in the film that didn't ring true for Barron's Farran Smith Nehme was when Belfort exclaimed he is taking his team on a journey to take a hit at the 1%. That might make one forget the investors he conned into buying penny stocks with bad information. And according to a court ruling to the tune of $110 million, that shouldn't be believed, Nehme reports,

After pleading guilty to fraud and money laundering in 1999, Belfort was ordered to make restitution of $110.4 million—plus interest. (Porush was ordered to pay more than $200 million.) Indeed, the judgment required Belfort to pay half of his earnings into a restitution fund, which, prosecutors say, he hasn't done.

In addition to $10.4 million in assets that were seized from him personally, Belfort has coughed up only $1.2 million so far—and most of that involuntarily. For example, he forked over $702,000 in royalties from his two memoirs only after a restraining notice was served on his agent, according to prosecutors. The Wolf of Wall Street was followed by Catching the Wolf of Wall Street, in which he revels in ratting out his former friends in return for a reduction in prison time.

Having served 28 months of a 42-month sentence, Belfort now claims he is reformed. He says he has made repeated offers over the past two years to turn over the money he received for the movie rights to the government. But prosecutors say he paid only $21,000 in restitution in 2011, the same year he signed the $1.045 million movie deal and reported the receipt of $940,500.

'The Wolf of Wall Street'
In Susan Antillo's reporting for the New York Times, she uncovers a number of investors who lost a few hundred thousand dollars to Belfort's scheme, Antillo reports.

Peter Springsteel, an architect in Mystic, Conn., said he was just starting his business when he was cold-called by a Stratton broker in the early 1990s. He wound up losing about half his life savings. “At this point in life, it’s a valuable lesson to look back on,” he said. “It definitely taught me to be much more careful.”

“My father lost practically a quarter-million dollars,” said Dr. Louis E. Dequine III, a veterinarian in Oak Creek, Colo., whose father, Louis E. Dequine Jr., an engineer, was cold-called at his home in Pensacola, Fla., by a Stratton broker. Mr. Dequine suffered a stroke under the stress of his losses.

Finally, a letter from Christina McDowell ran in the LA Weekly. Her father Tom Prousalis (McDowell changed her name to avoid continuing fallout from her father's actions) was one of the men who Belfort testified against. Her father used her name to make investments, and ruined her financially.  McDowell's ire against "The Wolf of Wall Street" is that it doesn't give a full picture of the many victims people like Belfort and her father left behind.  Writing specifically to Scorsese and Dicaprio, she says,

So here's the deal. You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers' fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.

And yet you're glorifying it -- you who call yourselves liberals. You were honored for career excellence and for your cultural influence by The Kennedy Center, Marty. You drive a Honda hybrid, Leo. Did you think about the cultural message you'd be sending when you decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn't made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior. And don't even get me started on the incomprehensible way in which your film degrades women, the misogynistic, ass-backwards message you endorse to younger generations of men.

And the kicker is in McDowell's postscript:

PS. Quick update on Dad: He is now doing business with the Albanian government and, rumor has it, married to a 30-year-old Albanian translator -- they always, always land on their feet.

If you want more from McDowell, she's working on her memoir -- but the entire post is also worth a read.

But all of this brings up an important question for Scorsese's film: What are the ethics of using a memoir of dubious, unethical behavior as your source text?  How far astray can you go to make a point? Can you make the point just by revealing the hero in all of his excess?

Similar questions have been asked about other Scorsese films. While it was reporting that got crime reporter/screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi access for the stories behind Scorsese's "Goodfellas" and "Casino," the sympathy some viewers had for the characters in led to questions about the glorification of crime.  

For some, like McDowell, the fact that Belfont ruined so many more lives with his financial dealings -- and is still a millionaire whose speaking engagements will only increase after the film -- makes "The Wolf of Wall Street" more reprehensible.  

In the end, the film may be a Rorschach test. Those who recognize the ills of capitalism will see in the dense, complicated film an extreme example of the power of greed and the lure of abundance.  Those who won't, may cheer our hero while doing lines of coke off of scantily clad women. 
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27 Comments

  • ITTY UP | January 1, 2014 7:43 AMReply

    WHY is NO ONE talking about the FACT that
    Scorsese ---BALKED--- the ONLY interesting thing
    about Wall Street then and now? --the Globalist---RED China
    handover TREASON OP?

    LOOK in ANY direction.

    WE ARE FINISHED.

  • mminka | December 30, 2013 6:52 PMReply

    I think the movie is propelled on the one hand by contempt for ordinary people (who don't even rate an appearance even though they are bilked by the thousands) and by the star worship servility of ordinary people (who lap up stuff like this). There's an addiction here which is more profound then drugs sex or money. It's the fan boy (mostly boy, I've noticed fewer girl fans) suck up thrills chasing which is really power & money worship. That is what rocks this movie. Fine, love this stuff. Identify with the bad boys sucking coke by the bushel. But just remember: you are the not in the club. You are such a loser you don't even know when you are being treated with contempt.

  • agatino zurria | December 29, 2013 9:25 AMReply

    There's always two sides to a coin, and when it comes to filmmakers like Scorsese, who makes very opinionated and over-the-top films that reflect some of the accepted illnesses of our society, it's like playing with fire. But you can either make a film about the victims and how they fell into certain traps or were killed or you can make a film about the criminals and how they lived their lives filled with lies and other corrupting behaviors. In the end, we are all attracted to the dark side wether we like it or not. When there's a terrible crash on the street you don't pass and look away. You stop and look, for a glance of death and horror. We enjoy it. And the fact that Jordan Belfort is still making millions on us is proof that he knows where our soul is and how we are trapped in our own misery.
    It's true, yes, this film glorifies these high-stake crooks, but that doesn't mean we glorify them cause they're our twisted heroes. Scorsese uses DiCaprio so that we can identify with this character. It's a macabre trick and a very effective one.

  • Emma Farley | December 28, 2013 2:08 PMReply

    I've been waiting for an article like this. When I saw this in the movie theater, during the point where Jordan is deciding to cheat on his wife for the first time or not, the guy behind me said, "you know what you gotta do- fuck the bitch!" And I thought it was ridiculous that a film that could get a reaction like that could be so critically acclaimed.

  • steve barr | December 28, 2013 3:25 AMReply

    Scorsese has been making the same movie for thirty years. Goodfellas was an updated Mean Streets , Casino was Goodfellas goes to Vegas ,The Departed was Goodfellas goes to Boston and now Wolf is Goodfellas goes to Wall Street . Just another boring ,bloated example of his dicectorial masturbation run wild .

  • Poblano | December 28, 2013 1:46 AMReply

    "Who are these people?" - Seinfeld

    Are we becoming so dense that that we can no longer recognize the author's point of view and differentiate storytelling from moral instruction? Folks need to take some responsibility for their critical interpretation, or lack there of, when viewing artistic material. It is not Da Vinci's job to explain why the Mona Lisa smiles, nor is it Martin Scorsese's job to write an economic textbook showing all sides of the 80's junk bond mania when making a film.

  • Jon | December 28, 2013 1:05 AMReply

    If Scorsese glorifies crime, than Kubrick must have glorified war. Does that mean that soldiers are at fault for killing people? If not, than neither are criminals at fault for being lead into the lives they get into.

    When a recruit signs on the dotted line, they should know they're going to be killing innocent people and perpetuating war for self glorification, just as anyone who embarks into crime knows they are hurting innocent people too, for personal profit.

    The kicker is that war crimes are so massively large in scale in comparison. But most people glorify it wholeheartedly, without blinking an eye.

  • edward | December 28, 2013 2:57 PM

    Kubrick's films are outwardly anti-war, even though one could argue that trying to turn war into a cinematic experience could be a subtle promotion of it. From what I hear, Wolf Of Wall Street is lacking in an outward moral judgement of its subject matter, making it a tacit approval of not just criminality, but WALL STREET criminality, which most politically aware people would find disgusting.

  • marcel gendron | December 27, 2013 8:53 PMReply

    Have read the book. Have not seen the movie, yet. Jordan lived his life, was gifted at the Market. He made decisions that had consequences. I'm going to see this movie, because it is factual, it's insane, it's a free for all, it's entertainment. When the Last Temptation of Jesus Christ was shown in movie theaters, some fanatics freaked out. If the Wolf glorifies the 1%, arrest them all. I don"t think Warren Buffett lives like that, nor Bill.

  • Decrepitude | December 27, 2013 11:03 PM

    "was gifted at the Market. He made decisions that had consequences." And, as played by Leo, oh so dreamy! What about the consequences that his "decisions" brought upon his victims and the rest of the country as a whole? Quit being such an apologist for the blood sucking filthy rich. You're bringing attention to the fact that there is indeed something that's wrong. Yes, the people who are concerned about glorifying Wall Street are of the same cloth as the religious freaks who protested Last Temptation...

  • Jack | December 27, 2013 8:47 PMReply

    I'd be really curious if anybody who's seen the film could comment on if or how it critiques capitalism. As has been stated many times, there's an awful lot of moral ambiguity in Scorsese's films. I think, however, Goodfellas does not glorify organised crime, beyond the dazzling stylishness the director must find difficult to resist - *that* is a film that critiques American capitalism, albeit through the prism of a sensational industry. He's excellent at providing these social histories of America that appear on the surface to fit within a preconceived genre, although there have been precious few examples of the kind of corporate gangster movie this is supposed to be. I suppose that parallel in itself is essentially critical. Scorsese's interesting because he's rarely been too explicitly political - whilst one could broadly consider him a liberal, an outspoken defender of that disgusting rat piece of shit Elia Kazan is not what you'd expect a "man of the left" to be. Where would you place the politics of this movie?

  • TAMENY | December 28, 2013 3:06 PM

    @JON I disagree that a great film is always ambiguous in terms of morality and politics. While some amount of ambiguity can and must exist for good art, complete misunderstanding and vagueness about what a film means is not. "because those things are personal and everyone sees them differently"... Is that what makes the ending of Paths of Glory so powerful, that all those men see the German girl's singing differently? Great films do not need a cop out excuse for their greatness.

  • Jon | December 28, 2013 1:14 AM

    A great film, like great art, is always ambiguous in terms of morality and politics because those things are personal and everyone sees them differently. If this glories crime and if that's too real for you, get over it. We don't live in a fairy tale. America doesn't support "American dreams' or Hollywood endings.

    The fact the film affects you as much as it does attests to its greatness.

  • TAmeny | December 27, 2013 10:51 PM

    Sisteve123, I wonder if the average Redbox customers are going to pick up on that, or maybe process it in a pile with the other junk like Miley Cyrus and Duck Dynasty, etc? I'm not sure that mainstream movie directors can avoid the moral implications of their work by calling it art when art is defined by the people who see it. Can you be both Adam Sandler and Stanley Kubrick at the same time to different people? I'm thinking no. A work of art should retain its identity no matter who sees it (give or take a little). Given that, Wolf of Wall Street sounds dangerous and morally despicable.

  • SIsteve123 | December 27, 2013 10:05 PM

    The film shows capitalism as just another addiction and a extension of the white male id

  • Erin | December 27, 2013 7:32 PMReply

    I was reflecting on this today: I think the fact that we are having a conversation on whether or not a studio film carries an ethical message might not be a bad thing in and of itself. The last time I recall there was this kind of conversation about a film was "Natural Born Killers", and that was released almost 20 years ago. Either it shows how much audiences have lowered their expectations, or how focused on the "bottom line" the studios have become.

  • pol | December 27, 2013 7:11 PMReply

    Wolf: Scorsese’s Best Film?
    http://wp.me/pwAWe-3dF

  • Luke | December 27, 2013 3:57 PMReply

    Sounds like an attempt to censor to me. Scorsese film ms are art, not history. Make a documentary with the victims of that is what you want to do but that's not what Scorsese does with WOLF.

  • Katie | December 28, 2013 12:37 AM

    You sound like Sarah Palin, criticism is not censorship.

  • Dede | December 27, 2013 8:53 PM

    Exactly!

  • GenMe | December 27, 2013 3:21 PMReply

    I've always thought there were some morally questionable aspects to some of Scorsese's films: the killing of the black grocery store robber in Taxi Driver, the stabbing of the guy in the trunk in Goodfellas... Maybe it's time to stop making excuses for him. This film sounds absolutely horrible and disgusting. I would like to see it to make that judgement myself, but I'm not sure I want to spend my money or time on it.

  • GENME | December 29, 2013 1:25 PM

    Yes, I agree that the graphic violence of Goodfellas was the lesser of the two examples, but more on point is the black corpse desecration in Taxi Driver. Yes, the scene very accurately portrayed Bickle's pathological racism, but that does not discount that the scene would play like porn for the pathological racist. John Hinckley gives a good example of how someone can mistake this "moral ambiguity" of art that people use to defend WOWS. One only has to look at how defenders of the film diminish Wall Street crime to see the problem with this movie. It's like defending Hitler as played by a charming George Clooney.

  • johngdc | December 29, 2013 12:26 PM

    yes but we all know that killing a man by stabbing him in the trunk of your car is wrong.

    WOWS left a moral ambiguity about stealing from faceless, nameless, working class people and then using that money to blow drugs into various body parts of prostitutes.

  • Madrigal | December 27, 2013 3:04 PMReply

    Seems like it is the system that is the problem. Belfort hasn't fled justice. Justice has dealt with him. He is a free man.
    Why didn't he get a harder sentence? Why does he get to keep 50 per cent of what he earns? Why not let him live on minimum wage and give the rest to his victims? And why does he get to pocket the money from the movie deal and then pay a pittance in restitution? The money should have been paid to the authorities and then they could give him a pittance.
    If America wants people like Belfort to suffer more, they should change the laws instead of blaming Scorsese. It's hardly his job to punish people that the American people has let off easy.

  • Jon | December 28, 2013 1:28 AM

    The movie exposes the injustice. Otherwise we'd never know it happens.

  • GenME | December 27, 2013 3:25 PM

    Is it his job to determine the mindset of the American public towards people like Belfort by making a movie like this? Apparently, it is.

  • parsyeb | December 27, 2013 3:00 PMReply

    This is reality. If you don't understand how attraction works, perhaps you should leave off any cinema made in Hollywood.