Controversy has always been something of a boon for film-makers. It’s said there’s no such thing as bad publicity and like artists working in any medium film makers can gain an audience for their work based as much on the controversy generated by their film as the quality of the finished work. Scorsese has been no stranger to controversy himself over his career. From the bleak hellish dystopian vision of New York as seen in Taxi Driver, a film where Jodi Fosters central performance as a child prostitute is alleged to have inspired President Regan’s attempted assassination, through the brutal unflinching portrayal of the Mafia lifestyle as seen in Goodfellas and Casino to political controversy for his underrated Kundun, which told the life story of the Dali Lama and in doing so managed to upset China. Let’s not forget the last temptation of Christ, a film that caused a major shit-storm both with Christian groups in America and the Catholic Church itself.
Scorsese has never been afraid of presenting things in film, be it images or ideas that provoke his audience. He’s an avowed cinephile who is well versed in the tricks and techniques employed in the medium of film and he knows exactly how to deploy them. This is one of the reasons so many of his films are considered classics. He is one of cinema’s master craftsmen. Wolf of Wall street is a classic example of Scorsese in action. Stylistically it bares most resemblance to Goodfellas and Casino as it moves through its story at a brisk pace with an eclectic mix of classic Rock and pop music from various eras. Like his two Mafia pictures the film is based on a true story and follows the rise and eventual fall of the lead characters empires as a result of their transgressions. Where wolf of wall street differs however, is that unlike Henry Hill for example, Jordan Belfort, the lead character played by Leonardo Di Caprio never really paid any kind of high price for his crimes outside a short stint in a fairly luxurious white collar jail reserved for the mega rich.
And here in lies the problem for some of the audience. Belfort’s tale is one of excess. Starting out as a broker on Wall street, he soon found himself unemployed when Black Monday hit and the whole system crashed. Keen to get back to doing the job he enjoyed he soon found himself working in a boiler room (http://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/boilerroom.asp) operation out in New Jersey selling worthless penny shares to gullible blue collar workers looking to invest their savings. A natural salesman Belfort soon found himself making large sums of money and when he went self employed and hit upon the idea of selling the same stock to rich investors, he quickly became incredibly wealthy on the back of a business model that was pretty much illegal from the get go. As the money poured in, Belfort and his employees began to wallow in excess with copious amounts of drugs and prostitutes along with the other trappings of Conspicuous consumption. Belfort is an unlike-able little shit. An awful human being with the moral compass of a rabid hyena. His company is the very reason stripping away financial regulation was such a poor idea. Ultimately though, while he does get caught he makes no bones about the fact that he’s rich enough to avoid any real consequences for his actions in spite of his appalling criminal behaviour. Ultimately there is no moral resolution to the story.
As an audience we are very familiar with our films providing comeuppance to the ‘bad guy’. The structure and rules of the Hollywood formula, and for a lot of storytelling before that, dictate that there should be a moral resolution to the story of some kind. Belfort’s story offers no such ending. As a director Scorsese COULD have offered up some sign to the audience that Belfort has learned some kind of Lesson. Print the myth rather than the facts as John Ford may have argued, but instead he resolves the story exactly as it did in real life. An unrepentant Belfort effectively getting off the hook.
Critics have argued that this makes the film itself immoral. That by not offering some kind of moral retribution Scorsese is legitimising and glorifying Belfort’s behaviour. I disagree.
The films ultimate message is directed at the system. Belfort GOT CAUGHT. It was up to the system to punish him. Instead just like many other City crooks who make big bucks he received a fine and a short stay at white collar prison that resembles some kind of holiday camp. Belfort’s story is one of grotesque excess but the man is an imbecile. A good salesman but not much else. The sad fact is there are many like him in the financial services industry. Super rich, entitled ass-holes earning huge money for doing very little of value and producing nothing. So why focus the moral rage we should be feeling at Belfort’s ‘punishment’. The film argues it’s the system itself we should be angry at. Not the monsters it fails to punish. The one mistake the film really makes is trying to make that point subtly. There is nothing Subtle about Jordan Belfort, so the ultimate message of his story need not be subtle either.