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.
In fact, the movie regards the technical details of finance (high and low) as ultimately irrelevant. Whenever Belfort begins to explain the mechanics of an IPO or the schemes he’s using to launder money—an occasion in which it seems natural that he’d defend his practice—he stops short. “Who cares?” he says, looking straight into the camera. He’s acknowledging a conspiracy of interest between the audience and him: Neither party cares very much for complex financial mechanisms, and hearing about them won’t convince anyone that they are either essential to ensuring broad prosperity or warrant all kinds of bad behavior to support them.
We, the audience, are not treated like Belfort’s clients, which is to say, with contempt for our intelligence. He makes no efforts to explain or justify his actions. On the contrary, he trusts that, vicariously at least, we are glad to participate in the deception and debauchery. “I want them to live like me,” he says of his savages, and for three hours, that includes us.