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Just How Much Does Scorsese’s ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ Glorify the 1%? Discuss.

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.

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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