Friday, May 23, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (Red Granite/Paramount, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Wolf of Wall Street, a title ironically used for a Paramount film made in 1929 starring George Bancroft as a ruthless stockbroker and Olga Baclanova (in her first talkie) as the female lead. The plot synopsis of the 1929 Wolf of Wall Street (which by the way was issued in February of that year, eight months before the Crash) says, “A ruthless stockbroker sells short in the copper business and ruins the life of his friends by ruining their finances.” The 2013 Wolf of Wall Street, the one we watched last night, also deals with a ruthless stockbroker who ruins the lives of his friends, but he doesn’t involve himself in any business as socially useful as copper; he’s Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who really existed — the film is based on his memoir — who worked his way into a job at a Wall Street firm owned by a branch of the Rothschild family and got mentored by a fellow named Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), a name that looms large in the history of America’s last predatory age where corporations ran everything and bribed their way into total control of the political system, the 1890’s, since Mark Hanna was the unscrupulous political operative who masterminded William McKinley’s election as president over William Jennings Bryan and was often cited by Karl Rove as his role model. Hanna’s advice to Jordan is that the whole point of being a broker is to “move the client’s money from his pocket to yours,” and he also tells him to masturbate at least twice a day — the first of innumerable bits of dialogue in this film linking moneymaking to sex and drugs. Alas, Jordan Belfort’s first day on the job as a fully licensed broker (following a six-month apprenticeship as a “connector,” which basically means someone who takes phone calls and connects the brokers to the clients) coincides with the October 1987 stock-market crash, in which one-fourth of Wall Street’s paper value disappeared overnight (itself a commentary on how unstable and unsustainable an economy based on financial speculation really is) and the venerable Rothschild’s brokerage Jordan was working for ceased to exist overnight.

With his wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) pushing him to find any kind of work to support them, Jordan signs on to a sleazy brokerage called Investico operating out of a space in a shopping mall, and realizes that they’re dealing in so-called “penny stocks,” companies way too shaky to earn a place on the New York stock exchange, the NASDAQ or any other even remotely credible exchange. Jordan becomes a superstar at this firm when he talks up a Midwestern startup that’s doing radar research in a garage and makes it sound like the next big high-tech buy, and quickly he leaves the shopping mall to start a brokerage of its own, calling it “Stratton Oakmont” because he realizes two big heavy-duty Anglo-sounding names will give his motley crew of white ethnics (plus one token Asian) credibility with potential customers. He assembles his friends Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Manny Riskin (Jon Favreau), Nicky Koskoff (P. J. Byrne) — whom he contemptuously nicknames “Rugrat” for his ill-fitting toupee — and the token Asian, Chester Ming (Kenneth Choi), as his brokerage crew, and they build Stratton Oakmont into a huge brokerage that graduates from penny stocks to blue chips (Jordan’s strategy is to sell potential clients the blue-chip issues and then graduate them to the far more speculative piles of shit in his inventory) and then to the crème de la crème of the financial sector, Initial Public Offerings (IPO’s). An IPO is supposedly the first time a stock in a particular company is made available to the general public, though given the legerdemain of the financial world companies like Firestone that have existed (and been publicly traded) for decades can buy back all their own stock, then resell it and that is also called an IPO. The IPO that puts Jordan on the map in the brokerage world is for the Steve Madden company, which makes high-end women’s shoes and whose founder, Steve Madden (Jake Hoffman), is a wimp barely more functional than the supposed art “genius” Monroe in Untitled. Jordan keeps 85 percent of the stock in Madden’s company for himself, though he lists it in Madden’s name, which starts a bidding war on Wall Street that ultimately earns him a cover story in Forbes and the title, “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He’s furious at the way the article portrays him but his wife assures him that all publicity is good publicity, and so it proves; the Forbes portrayal of Jordan as an unscrupulous market buccaneer attracts dozens of aspiring brokers to want to work for him and enables him to expand his operation even further.

When he’s not playing Master of the Universe with other people’s money Jordan’s principal diversions are sex and drugs — particularly prostitutes (in one of the in-character narrations DiCaprio delivers as Jordan throughout the film, he rates them as high-, middle- and low-end, saying that the low-end “skank” ones require either a condom or a shot of penicillin immediately after you fuck them, though of course Jordan and his partners plow on regardless, in more ways than one) and Quaaludes, which were so totally outlawed in 1982 (the government not only put Quaaludes themselves on Schedule 1 but the precursor chemicals out of which they were made as well; later the DEA tried to do the same thing with methamphetamines but were unable to because the big drug companies that made cold medicines were able to lobby and get the bans on ephedrine and pseudoephedrine blocked) that their scarcity value shot up and they became the drug of choice (along with cocaine, which Jordan and company used as much as an antidote for the tranquilizing effects of the Quaaludes as for its own pleasures) for Jordan and his entourage. One wouldn’t think that people involved in a high-stakes business that operates 24/7 worldwide and in which fortunes can be made or lost in a matter of milliseconds would use a drug that would render them almost totally nonfunctional once the big effects kick in, but apparently they did.

The Wolf of Wall Street is unsparing in its depiction of Jordan and his colleagues as totally unconcerned with the welfare of any other people — Jordan even dumps Teresa and remarries to a hot blonde trophy wife named Naomi (Margot Robbie) as casually as you’d throw out one facial tissue and replace it with a fresh one, and of course he isn’t any more sexually exclusive to Naomi than he was to Teresa. There’s a chilling scene, shown in highlight at the opening of the film and then in greater depth later on, in which they hire a little person to be thrown through a target of money and casually debate whether or not it will hurt him (they decide it won’t because little people’s heads are supposedly bigger and thicker than other people’s), and the film’s sexism is so relentless that one woman on the Stratton Oakmont staff gets paid $10,000 to have her long hair crudely shaved off like an admittee to a concentration camp, and even a woman who was involved in the early days of Stratton Oakmont gets sexually humiliated in the guise of being recognized for her achievements. Its homophobia is equally relentless; the worst way Jordan and his male entourage can insult each other is to call each other “fags,” and the one actual Gay person in the movie (Jordan’s butler) is dangled off a balcony and then beaten to a pulp, first by Jordan’s bodyguards and then by the police Jordan bribes to do so, because when Jordan was supposed to be away the butler staged a Gay orgy in his home and $50,000 (small change compared to Jordan’s worth) was stolen from a dresser drawer.

The director is Martin Scorsese — who seems to have the attitude towards Jordan and his gang he did towards the Mafiosi of his earlier films; he’s so fascinated by them he’s totally uninterested in even acknowledging, let alone depicting, the social harm they cause — and the credited screenwriter is Terence Winter, though the film is peppered with so many uses of “fuck” and “shit” I found myself wondering if “Terence Winter” was a pseudonym for David Mamet. (I remember reading for years that Mamet was considered a master at “well-turned dialogue,” and when I finally saw something he wrote I thought, “Is that all I have to do to be credited with writing ‘well-turned dialogue’ — make every other word an obscene one?”) Together they managed to make a film about a highly politically charged issue — the overwhelming importance of the financial sector in the modern U.S. economy and the total lack of scruples or conscience among the people who run it — with virtually no expressed point of view about it at all. Oh, there are a few veiled bits of social commentary at the beginning that hint at an Occupy-like critique of Wall Street, and a few bits at the end (especially as Jordan’s scams start to unravel and the government gets serious about prosecuting him) that feint at making him an Ayn Rand hero, an individualist heroically standing up against the forces of collectivism, Big Government and anything that might get in the way of the free spirit of capitalism. But even Rand would have been hard put to make a hero out of someone who was basically a swindler, and as in so many movies today the hints of anti-corporate commentary are just leftover tics from an earlier age of filmmaking (and an earlier Zeitgeist) reflecting a more populist America that was suspicious of the rich instead of virtually worshiping them.

It’s ironic that Leonardo DiCaprio made this movie the same year as he starred in the latest version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — also a story about a poor man who became super-rich through dubious deals and machinations — and that this, not Gatsby (in which he portrayed a much more complex character who reflected his creator’s decidedly mixed view of the rich), was the film that won him his Academy Award. DiCaprio manages to nail Jordan Belfort’s energy, salesmanship and drive — though we still wonder how Jordan was able to keep his enterprise afloat for so long when he spent so much of his time pursuing drugs and pussy (I hate using that last word but it’s an all too obvious reflection of the way Jordan, at least as presented here, thought about women; apparently the real Jordan Belfort had no objection to the way his business career was portrayed in the film but was really upset at the portrayal of his relationship to Naomi, and especially about how it ended), and rather than making a huge fortune one would expect someone as out of control of his appetites as Jordan is shown here to lose one and end up on the street, not on Wall Street. The Wolf of Wall Street is also a typical modern movie in that we don’t really get to meet anyone who’s actually likable; the characters are all so unattractive — relentlessly ambitious, money-grubbing, cheerily unconcerned for anyone else’s welfare (in an early scene with Mark Hanna, Jordan asks isn’t it good if he can make money for both himself and his client, and Hanna chews him out as being hopelessly naïve) and interested in women only as play-toys and possessions. Though it’s clearly a superior movie to American Hustle (mainly because Scorsese is a much more exciting director than David O. Russell, and also because Jordan Belfort’s sex and drug obsessions enable Scorsese to get us out of all those dull offices and hotel rooms and actually show us things with movie cred!), it’s equally matter-of-fact in its portrayal of the American ruling class as hopelessly corrupt and of that corruption as a fact of life we can’t do anything about except live with and suffer through. In their combination of vivid depictions of inequality and the futility of attempting to reverse it, these movies are essentially propaganda aimed at getting the masses to accept the current social order as the so-called “new normal,” a phrase a writer in the current Monthly Review has said is itself reactionary.