Hungry Like a Wolf

by Kiko Matsing

DiCaprio is golden as Jordan Belfort, living the American Dream

Scorsese is baaack! In The Wolf of Wall Street, the director of Goodfellas (1990), and its less regarded sibling, Casino (1995), is back in form: telling the story of schmucks scraping to the top from the underbelly of America. (There have been gems in the interim–The Age of Innocence and Cape Fear are my favorites, and of course, there’s the Oscar winning The Departed–but most of them lack the auteur’s stamp. Not only does Wolf’s narrative sound familiar, Scorsese puts out from the get-go his trademark cinematic style: the voice over narrations, freeze frames, the main character breaking the fourth wall, long tracking shots, and rhythmic editing that foot-taps to popular music and arrests at extended scenes of dextrous dialogue. (Matthew McConaughey, still emaciated from Dallas Buyers Club, stole that scene on this one.) Even Leonardo DiCaprio–his muse for more than a decade–is inspired. DiCaprio, who has been shining on screen in Quentin Tarrantino’s Django Unchained and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, delivers an exuberant, no-holds-barred, and, at last, satisfying performance in a Scorsese film. And speaking of music, there are some great blues in the soundtrack from Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, and of course Howlin’ Wolf! Popular music is once again made central and memorable. These make Wolf, more than any of his films in nearly two decades, feel like a Scorsese film.

Blues Greats: Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley

But could there be some mellowing with age? There are plenty of hookers and cocaine to go around, but put side-by-side with Goodfellas, this is bloodless nursing home fare for baby boomers. I suppose sex here stood in for the violence among mobsters as the vehicle of excess among stockbrokers. Yes, it is hedonistic as a Roman Bacchanalia, but I would not call it decadent, at least in the European sense, where pleasure is permeated by a feeling of world-weariness, ennui, and inertia, as in the languid twilights of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, or Henry James’ opulent but decaying Venice in Wings of the Dove. For all the complaints about the gratuitous sex and drugs, these were not regarded like aesthetic experiences for jaded sophisticates like Hannibal Lecter or those sadistic Italian fascists in Pasolini’s Salò. Disenchantment and exhaustion from their recursive pleasure-seeking steers their sybaritism towards transgressive cruelty.

The Briar Wood, 1885-90, Edward Burne-Jones:
Kights overcome by sleep and entangled in thorns

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini:
Cruelty as aesthetic experience

It is interesting that liberals frowned upon its ambivalence toward capitalist greed with the same protestant asceticism as religious conservatives who are shocked at the graphic display of debauchery. It is the same severe New England puritanism sublimated into socialist pieties, this clamor for art to serve as didactic propaganda for the pinko politburo. Critics on the fence about whether Scorsese was glamorizing its excesses or condemning it by portraying its repercussions must be tone deaf. Belfort, like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, was given an easy way out by ratting on their cohorts in crime. Their biggest regrets were missing their once extravagant life, as they looked forward to another under witness protection or parole, living the rest of their years, in Hill’s words, like a schnook. An average nobody–like the worn down FBI officer who nabbed Belfort, contemplating in the drabness of his daily train commute what was ultimately his hallow victory.

To me the movie is clearly celebratory–it romanticizes American success. It is sunlit and airy, not weighed down and claustrophobic like Burne-Jones’ Briar Wood. There is joy in the revelry, as that of children let loose in a candy shop. Their salesmanship had the missionary zeal of Bible-thumping preachers at revivals, albeit drunk in the spirit of a venal enterprise. Yes, they have large appetites, but also fire in their belly. They were nobodies who had nothing in their pockets but the will to live large. In one scene a marching band wearing only undergarments barges into the firm’s offices to commence celebrations–a clear nod to Citizen Kane, the film par excellence that examines grandiose ambitions. The actual wealth acquired is almost incidental to the adrenaline rush of its acquisition. The real drug is not money, but the making of it, especially in the game of getting a fool to part with his. Victims in this movie are not innocent lambs; they are driven as much as the stockbrokers by capital gains. They are complicit in their own ruin, as what ultimately dupes them is their own greed.

Let the fun begin: at the offices of Stratton Oakmont
and The New York Daily Inquirer

Work hard, play harder: DiCaprio gives an exuberant performance,
preaching the gospel of success

Protestant objections of the left to “capitalist greed” are correct but misplaced. The values portrayed on film are not consistent with those of capitalism in the first place. A capitalist economic system requires, by definition, the accumulation of capital, which is then consistently and rationally invested in production. (Consumer Culture, Goodman & Cohen, 2003) Capitalist culture values hard work, self-restraint, frugality, and discipline–the same values enshrined in the Protestant ethic. Think of Warren Buffet. One does not strive to accumulate wealth only to squander it on yachts and helicopters, trashing Las Vegas hotel suites, or snorting blow from a hooker’s ass. These are not rational investments of capital. What these audiences actually find vulgar is the luxurious indulgence of consumer culture. It is irrational, compulsive, libidinal. It encourages spending and going into debt. Work becomes not a moral end but a means towards more consumption. Avarice as applied to capitalism refers specifically to the exploitation of workers as dehumanized means of production. This is what Marx critiqued, not the swindling of wealth from fellow capitalist investors. “Capitalist greed” is not what is operational here, but conspicuous consumption. These stockbrokers, in short, are not capitalists in the sense of being rational investors, just common con artists trying to score to get high. They are no different from the sad saps in American Hustle. That movie blatantly roots for the scammers, but no one complains. That’s because they’re pathetic small time crooks, not clean cut Wall Street sharks in starched shirts.

Small time crooks

What Scorsese explores throughout his films is an idea of America. Not the kind inscribed in the Constitution and enshrined in its monuments in Washington, but, as the tagline in Gangs of New York says, the America born in the streets. His most memorable characters are those low-lifes who duke it out at the bottom of society: Johnny Boy (Mean Streets), Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull), Henry Hill (Goodfellas), James Conway (Casino), Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Gangs of New York), and, now, Jordan Belfort, the newest addition to the pantheon of schmucks. While Belfort’s crimes are white collar and bloodless, he is no less scrappy nor pathetic. He navigates the same treacherous streets, giving his darnedest best to claw his way to the top.

In a key scene in the movie, where Belfort delivers one of his pep talks to his team, he looks around the room, reflecting on the achievements of their firm, and concludes,

This is Ellis Island, people. I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, whether your relatives came over on the Mayflower or an inner-tube from Haiti. This, right here, is the land of opportunity. Stratton Oakmont is America.

And no matter what they did to build this city up again, for the rest of time,
it will be like no-one even knew we was ever here.

In many ways, this is the flip side of movies like Citizen Kane and The Aviator. This is the America of the dogged losers and misfits, on whose overgrown graves New York was built in Gangs of New York. Through the bullish boxer and cutthroat mobster, the high stakes roller and white collar huckster, Scorsese creates iconic tropes for these forgotten nobodies, scrappy Americans who have nothing but dreams in their pockets and a wolfish appetite for the high life.