The Sandpit of Capitalism


Forbes Magazine made him rich with a sharply directed blow beneath the belt. He was so crooked he decided to straighten the bumps of his character, but only after falling. He cheated. He stole. He adapted. Cleverly, the stock broker Jordan Belfort, the subject of Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, has decided to take money now in the honest way: robbing people in broad daylight with his words, caressing their vulnerabilities before swindling them in the name of the wealth credo. Nothing new – this is simply deception practiced with greater honesty. After all, the Belfort formula was what took the US, and the globe, to the great financial crisis of the last decade. Fictional earnings, and even more fictional accounts, were what mattered. Fraud was king, and the aristocracy of deception reigned.

A few effigies need to be burned from the outset. Christopher Orr gets the matches ready with his review in The Atlantic (Dec 25, 2013). Don’t see this film as a “scathing indictment of capitalism run amok”. Forget the idea that this is a “cautionary fable for our time”. Victims do not figure in a film Orr regards as “a magnificent black comedy, fast, funny, and remarkably filthy.” In truth, the perpetrator is the focus, the victim, the conqueror, and, just in case we forgot, the victim again. In an almost sinister way, the anti-hero is the victim extraordinaire. All other victims are merely ordinary.

Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is chockers with coke, Quaaludes, Adderall, Xanax, pot, morphine and rehab sessions. He, and his colleagues, are in the sandpit of capitalism. The effort is drowsily wearying. It is unacceptably long, though some forget that Scorcese likes length and lingeringly thick vegetation in his scripts. And the theme is old, as old, in fact, as the Wall Street crash of 1929, when the frail system of American capitalism was left to dry and blanch as politicians and bankers locked up the credit. Mark Kermode noted for The Guardian that certain parallels existed between Scorcese’s effort and Rowland V. Lee’s The Wolf of Wall Street (1929).

Some see Scorcese’s effort as painfully repetitive, doing the rounds, taking the same depraved tour through a stretched film. It is flatulent. It smells of the frat boy. But the corporate world is the wonder that reifies the excitement, fortifying it in coke, sex and mythical assets. Boom needs bust. The rise requires the near lethal fall, though that fall tends to be buffered by other people’s losses. Sniffing coke from the arse of a hooker gets dull after a time, even if the arse changes.

What Scorcese’s film does with relentless brutality is chart the lines of cult, Wall Street as a chanting, committed ideology, and, in the end, Wall Street as uncontainable. That witchdoctor is not for taming and exists outside any sense of regulation.

The start of the film, featuring Mark Hanna, played with brief but striking effect by the sharp shooting, toe crunching Matthew McConaughey, demonstrate this with primordial ferocity before attacking the first martinis of the day. This is jungle land, the land of hoots and toots. The tribe has its own rules and despises the law book that comes from the outside.

The cult effect of the film has voice, and effect, beyond the camera. It convinced Jonah Hill, who plays the clumsy Donnie Azoff, to get a heavily reduced income for working on the film. Hill, along with his thespian projection, find themselves as Scorcese’s perfect expressions. They are aspiring purveyors of swill who must make good. They are doing his bidding to climb the corporate tree. Scorcese, in a sense, becomes Wall Street. To succeed, they will also chant the primeval songs. In Hill’s case, they will take a pay cut, receiving $60,000 before commissions and taxes (NY Daily News, Jan 22).

The moral effort to subdue Belfort must fail. And that message does fall on deaf ears. For one, it makes such individuals as Thomas S. Hibbs, Dean of the Honours College at Baylor University dismissive. Hibbs can only see “frat-boy machismo” with “cloying” sexual scenes, scenes which evidently leave him drooping with disdain. (Anyone who doesn’t enjoy sex scenes, or sex, might be regarded as suspicious, but let’s allow the dull Hibbs this one flavourless vice.) He learns nothing, and suggests to his readers that nothing can be learned.

Missing the film’s point, he finds with pinching fury that the “The Wolf of Wall Street fails as both art and as entertainment. Scorcese’s latest is notable for its monotonous, self-indulgent nihilism” (National Review, Dec 27, 2013). If Hibbs was to look closer, he might find that the very nihilism he finds so disgusting is the very system that he wakes up to and profits from. Laughing at one’s self in a system where Wall Street’s activities are sacred can be dangerous.

Belfort was the contaminant who could go one better than the blue stock solids on Main Street. From penny stocks, he moved to the IPOs. He screws the screwed and gets screwed. The illustration is worth noting. White collar criminals might be bad, but they will still be envied as necessary spokes in the capitalist wheel.

America may well be a land of greedy little bastards, but it is also the land that produced counters and ripostes, where karma coils and recoils under a messianic and moral glare. Even Belfort, for all his perversions, is moral. “It was about a month in when I realised,” suggested the flesh and blood Belfort to Piers Morgan. “That was the first moment where I allowed greed to get the better of me.” Behind every American tragedy is the poem of resistance, even if poorly written. That aspect might have been brought out by Scorcese, but that would have been too much.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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