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.

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.

In this respect, Wolf stands out not only as the most anti-Wall Street movie I’ve ever seen from a major director but as a scathing indictment of the American Dream or what’s become of it in an age of extreme inequality and decadent consumerism. As Scorsese presents it, today, the American Dream has nothing to do with creation or client service—“We don’t create shit,” the same senior trader tells Belfort—the essence of it is simple: money, lots and lots of money.

“There is no nobility in poverty,” Belfort tells the trading floor at his firm, Stratton Oakmont. “I’ve been a rich man and I’ve been a poor man, and I choose rich every fucking time. At least as a rich man, when I have to face my problems, I show up in the back of a limo wearing a $2,000 suit and a $40,000 gold watch.” And if anyone should think he is “superficial” or “materialist” for saying such things, Belfort has a message for them: “Go get a job at fucking McDonalds, because that’s where you fucking belong.”

Wolf is rife with Belfort’s vulgar moralizing, and it serves to make him something more than an unglamorous Gordon Gekko. He ultimately embodies of a vision of the world where any attempt to describe a causal connection between “greed” and “good” seems not quaint or mistaken but entirely beside the point. For Belfort, all you need to know is that money is the sole criterion of status, success, and moral superiority. In the broadest sense, it is how human beings keep score, and he tells his shock troops he wants a “room full of winners.” How exactly they get their money, whether by laudable or even legal means, is ultimately irrelevant to him and, he intimates, to us. “This is Ellis Island,” he says. “This is the land of opportunity. Stratton Oakmont is America.”

Let’s hope not. According to Scorsese, the American Dream is a nihilistic bacchanal where any excess is redeemed by the ability to be excessive. “Enough of this will make you invincible,” Belfort says as he unrolls a $100 bill. The moral achievement of The Wolf of Wall Street is not that it shows Belfort to be wrong—it doesn’t—rather that it asks the audience:  What does it say about us if he’s right?