An Ethicist on Wolf of Wall Street: The Most Anti-Greed Movie Ever?

Critics have accused the Best Picture contender of being a reckless celebration of excess. It's actually one of the most scathing critiques of Wall Street that Hollywood's ever produced.

I gave in. With all the controversy surrounding The Wolf of Wall Street—a celebrated director assailed after an advance screening, stunned showgoers wondering what it takes these days to get an NC-17-rating, and two impassioned reviews from the New Yorker that would lead one to believe the authors had seen different movies—I bought a ticket to see the polarizing film up for five Oscars including Best Picture.

In the quiet moment between the endless march of trailers and the movie, I thought: This is what it must have been like for English professors watching Anonymous. In two hours, they would know every heresy of Shakespeare scholarship that Roland Emmerich had imparted to popular culture and, thus, to their students for years to come. For myself, given that I teach business ethics to students who dream of making their careers in the financial sector, I shuddered to think what Martin Scorsese might teach them.

But when the lights came up, I found myself relieved, and after a second showing, strangely enchanted. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort may be many things—filthy, callous, and crooked as they come—but, thank goodness, he’s not the second coming of Gordon Gekko.

Gekko, of course, is the made-to-measure Mephistopheles of Oliver’s Stone’s 1987 movie, Wall Street. Played with malevolent gusto by Michael Douglas, the character almost immediately achieved iconic status, a distinction highlighted in Wolf by that fact that he is mentioned as Belfort’s apparent model (it’s not meant as a compliment). 

There are parallels. Both men—and, to that end, both movies—embody what Michael Lewis once described as the central cultural assumption of modern finance, “that a trader is a savage, and a great trader, a great savage.” Savagery—at least of the frat-boy-with-a-fat-wallet variety—is showcased in both films, but Scorsese fixates on it. The movie is a sustained meditation on the grotesqueries of greed, but it makes no attempt to assess that passion as the alleged engine of capitalism.

In this respect, Wolf departs from its predecessor, whose most memorable moment involves Gekko’s full-throated defense of greed. “Greed—for lack of a better word—is good,” he says. “Greed is right. Greed works.” Greed, Gekko declares, will not only save the company he has targeted for takeover, but also “that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.” 

At the end of the speech, Douglas shoots his protégé an impish grin, as if to say, Can you believe the horse manure I was shoveling? But such doubts seem lost on those who take Gordon Gekko to be the avatar of some essential truth.

We live in an age when too many people, without too much thought, embrace the notion that greed is good. It is an attractive idea to the successful and the strong, but you needn’t be a committed socialist to find it morally incoherent. One can accept the guiding conceit of neoclassical economics–that people pursuing their private interests generally provide for greater development than a centrally planned economy—without also believing that we benefit from any selfish pursuit. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a belief more convenient or morally corrosive, for it not only justifies any bad behavior, however ugly, duplicitous, or cruel, it suggests the victims should be grateful for the harm done them.

Victims don’t get much screen time in Wolf—“Fuck the clients,” a senior trader tells Belfort by way of an education early in the movie—but there is no shortage of cruel, duplicitous, and remarkably ugly behavior. No attempt is made to defend such conduct as the requirement of a well-functioning financial sector.

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John Paul Rollert is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Chicago's Booth Business School. He has written for The New York Times, Boston Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

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