Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street has been roundly praised by critics and welcomed by Christmastime moviegoers, but it's received a frostier reception from an altogether more exclusive set of observers: those personally victimized by the real wolf, Jordan Belfort.
Naturally, that includes those hapless investors swindled by Belfort's Stratton Oakmont firm into purchasing fraudulent stocks and losing thousands of dollars. Those byproducts of Belfort's greed were the subject of a recent Times Dealbook feature that's worth reading in full. Here's a quick taste of how some are greeting the movie adaptation:
For many of them — small-business owners and people like Steve Orton, a State Farm insurance agent from Alpharetta, Ga. — the publicity for the movie has brought back the old pain. Still, Mr. Orton said, while “it kind of sickens me, I really feel like I owe it to myself to complete the circle to see it.”
Ken Minor, a real estate appraiser in Gilroy, Calif., said the experience “hurt me pretty bad.” He drew on a home equity line of credit to buy stocks with Mr. Belfort’s brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, and still has not repaid it. “I’m not a rich guy,” he said, “and I’ve been paying for it ever since.”
But the list of Belfort's victims ought also to include Christina McDowell, whose father, it seems, collaborated with Belfort on some of his petty schemes, only to wind up in prison after the wolf-turned-informant testified against him. McDowell's open letter to the filmmakers "and the wolf himself," which appears in L.A. Weekly, has quickly become a bit of a manifesto for those viewers troubled by Scorsese's almost grotesque fetishization of greed. An excerpt:
Belfort's victims, my father's victims, don't have a chance at keeping up with the Joneses. They're left destitute, having lost their life savings at the age of 80. They can't pay their medical bills or help send their children off to college because of characters like the ones glorified in Terry Winters' screenplay.
Let me ask you guys something. What makes you think this man deserves to be the protagonist in this story? Do you think his victims are going to want to watch it? Did we forget about the damage that accompanied all those rollicking good times? Or are we sweeping it under the carpet for the sale of a movie ticket?
So: are we? McDowell's scathing take prompts some worthwhile questions. Spoilers may follow (though, frankly, it's hard to "spoil" a film that has as inevitable a plotline as Wolf of Wall Street).
Does making Belfort the "protagonist" make the film an endorsement of his douchebaggery?
Well, no. Of course not. Scorsese carries with him a long filmography of desperately masculine and intensely flawed protagonists—think Jake LaMotta, Travis Bickle, and Henry Hill, for instance. And Wolf's view of Belfort's greed is so unflinching as to be nauseating in parts, unless you aspire to be a stockbroker billionaire snorting coke off of prostitutes' asses, which—well, we'll get to that in a bit.