Wolf of Wall Street – Greed is Good but Good is better

Just as Gordon Gekko argued that “greed is good” in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” in 1987, Martin Scorsese’s exhausting three bloghours of money-fueled debauchery makes an even more compelling case for that tenuous argument.

The screen version of Mr. Belfort — for all of his vices — is generous, uplifting, loyal and driven by values which he unabashedly stands by.

It’s important to keep that in mind if you decide to dig into the fact and fiction of the film. The Wolf of Wall Street is quite faithful to the book by Belfort that it’s based on—though there are differences; but how faithful is that book to reality? I do not know as haven’t read the book. Throughout the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio’s, playing the lupine financial huckster Jordan Belfort.

He is, as the screenplay puts it, a “twisted Robin Hood who takes from the rich and gives to himself and his merry band of brokers.”

Just as you’re thoroughly sick of the boorish Mr. Belfort and about to give up hope, he surprises you with something amazing or kind: a speech to his brokerage troops, his love for friends and family. Money makes those flashes of good more powerful, change more potent.

In that, the character of Mr. Belfort isn’t just every man on Wall Street, but everyman in the classic sense.

Though other movies such as Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job” or J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call” are more direct in their treatment of the financial crisis, Mr. Scorsese’s movie tackles a more transcendent question. It’s one that’s not about just Wall Street vs. Main Street values, but about values in general.

In a society fractured by wealth inequity, “Wolf” asks us not only what it means to be American, but to be human. It’s about how ideals — in this case the Wall Street variety — are not black and white. They are ambiguous.

Take a real-life example. Just as Mr. Belfort’s firm misled investors about stocks, J.P. Morgan Chase JPM  & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.GS have been accused of misleading investors about mortgage securities. In their own defense, they have argued that the allegedly wronged investors were accomplices. As Mr. Belfort might have put it: the mopes should have been sophisticated enough to know they were being duped. Plus, he would add, they love the thrill.

One could argue this view is blaming the victim, but isn’t there a shred of truth when demanding personal responsibility from one party and not expecting it of the other.

That’s why many reviews of “The Wolf of Wall Street” may be missing the point.

Critics alternately have described “Wolf” as “a glorification of unchecked greed” and “one of the most entertaining films ever made about loathsome men.”

The movie is all of the above, but it’s also about the internal conflict in us as investors and humans.

Stratton Oakmont, Mr. Belfort’s firm, is portrayed as a Wall Street underdog that fights dirty to break into the world occupied by Merrill Lynch & Co. and Morgan StanleyMS . It’s a boiler room that tries to not necessarily make good, but make it in an industry full of ambiguities. Stratton Oakmont is a dirty David fighting dirty Goliaths.

And we find ourselves rooting for them.

Because isn’t that true for all of us? Don’t we all struggle to walk the line between success and greed?

Critics are right in the observation that Mr. Scorsese’s film spends too much time and effort glorifying hedonism, materialism and narcissism, and doesn’t offer enough of a counterpoint.

There are no alternatives in this picture. Only Patrick Denham, the “Boy Scout” FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler hints at what could be considered an alternative to Mr. Belfort’s proud depravity, and that character isn’t fully developed. Instead we are left to sift through tedious hours of sex, drugs, money and more sex, drugs and money.

It can be overwhelming. And maybe that’s the point. Perhaps Mr. Scorsese wants us to find the counterpoint in ourselves.

Moreover, it can’t simply be coincidence that in this lust for pleasure that some of the film’s strongest and redeeming qualities are found. Bonds are made between friends. Characters are uplifted. Money does seem to create good.

Is money the only means to that end? Of course not. But as Mr. Belfort’s redemption suggests, redemption isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either. The characters in this movie are living on one end of the scale. They are sometimes honorable thieves. Do-gooders such as the FBI’s Mr. Denham? He’s not as happy. And the movie makes that clear in a very striking scene of him riding the subway.

Ultimately, “The Wolf of Wall Street” argues that money makes you a good person — for a price. There is a bigger message, one that’s a little harder to see through the debauchery, cocaine-fueled binges and awful behavior.

Greed is good, but good is better.

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