OF THEIR EXCESS
THE ‘‘ greed is good’’ credo of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) seems incredibly tame in comparison with the lifestyle and philosophies of Jordan Belfort, the central character of Martin Scorsese’s propulsion-charged new film, The Wolf of Wall Street.
In his bestselling autobiography of the same name, Belfort charted his career from its modest beginnings to the heights of drugfuelled, sex-obsessed, utterly amoral excess when he became one of the richest men in the world of finance, and then on to his late career as a criminal and FBI informant (and, finally, a sought-after motivational speaker).
In some ways this trajectory is comparable to that of the character played by Ray Liotta in Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990), and the two films do run on similar tracks, though Wolf lacks the gangster film’s visceral violence.
If nothing else, The Wolf of Wall Street reconfirms Scorsese as one of America’s finest living filmmakers. Whatever you may think of Belfort and the film in which he’s the central character, no one, surely, would deny the sheer brilliance with which it’s made or the furious energy of Leonardo DiCaprio’s central performance.
The film begins with a frenetic montage depicting Belfort’s life at the height (or depth) of his success: as he boasts of his achievements, his trophy wife, Naomi (‘‘The former Miller Lite Girl’’), his palatial home and his private helicopter, we see him snorting cocaine from the backside of a prostitute and getting fellated as he drives his Ferrari at high speed. Right from the start, Scorsese rubs our noses in the face of this dubious representative of the capitalist system.
Then the flashbacks begin. As a young man back in 1987 (the year Wall Street opened), Belfort arrived in New York’s financial district to take up a humble position as a ‘‘ connector’’ (a broker who attempts to make deals by phone) at the long-established financial house LF Rothschild. In one of the film’s best scenes, he’s taken out for a boozy (and druggy) lunch by senior broker Mark Hanna — a superb Matthew McConaughey — who instructs him in the ways of the City, which boil down to moving money from your clients’ pockets to your pockets. Hanna claims there are two keys to the brokerage business: relaxation (which he equates with masturbation) and cocaine (‘‘It will help you dial faster’’). In other words, sex and drugs — the rock ’ n’ roll is yet to come.
No sooner has Belfort started work than Black Monday brings the temporary collapse of the market and he’s out of a job — but not for long. He finds his way to a cheap, shopfront brokerage company whose manager (played, without credit, by Spike Jonze, the talented director of Her), while amazed that this well-dressed young man wants this kind of work, hires him.
Selling ‘‘ garbage to garbagemen’’, readers of Popular Mechanics and Hustler, soon proves profitable — for one thing, Belfort’s commission is 50 per cent, whereas it was only 1 per cent on Wall Street. Soon he’s assembled his own team of brokers and founded a company with a smart-sounding name — Stratton Oakmont — and he’s on his way. His first lieutenant is Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who is as dedicated to making a lot of money as Belfort himself.
Belfort thinks nothing of cheating his clients (‘‘Money makes you a better person,’’ he believes, so he’s dedicated to making as much as he possibly can) and not surprisingly his dishonesty extends to his dealings with his wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti). He cheats on her with a parade of high-class whores before he becomes infatuated with the spectacular Naomi (Margot Robbie, who was born on Queensland’s Gold Coast the year GoodFellas was released and who is a graduate of Neighbours).
When they’re not making extraordinary amounts of money the staff of Stratton Oakmont, enthusiastically led by their boss, indulge in a series of orgies that even the Roman emperors might have rejected as excessive. Scorsese depicts all of this with his usual energy, cinematic smarts and apparent delight in exploring the world of truly reprehensible people. He’s been accused of glorifying Belfort and his lifestyle, just as he was accused of glorifying gangsters in his earlier films — but while, unlike Oliver Stone, he’s not a moralist, it seems clear that he’s holding up the lives of these indulgent members of the financial community as examples of where unrestrained greed and a total lack of morals will lead.
The final reels clearly indicate the director’s point of view, although it must be admitted he takes a long time to get there (the film runs a minute short of three hours). In the process he gives us his funniest and most perversely entertaining movie.
One of the film’s funniest segments involves Belfort’s attempts to launder money in a Swiss bank with the help of his wife’s English aunt (Joanna Lumley) and a corrupt banker (Jean Dujardin).
Playing a wealthy high-liver for the second time in a year (after The Great Gatsby), DiCaprio gives an astonishing performance, while Robbie moves into the major league with her sometimes shocking portrait of a woman whose ambition gets in the way of her judgment.
With its wall-to-wall four-letter dialogue and its quite explicit scenes of decadence, The Wolf of Wall Street won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s an indispensable addition to the small collection of films that have challenged the way America’s financial system is conducted. As such, Belfort’s story is, indeed, a cautionary tale. CONVICT, which is getting a very limited release in a handful of cinemas, is an Australian film that also deals with corruption — this time in the prison system. Its protagonist is Ray Francis, played by George Basha (who scripted the film and co-directs with David Field).
Francis, who is of Middle Eastern parentage though born in Australia, is a veteran of the war in Iraq and on the day he returns home after completing his term of duty — and having won a medal for bravery — he proposes to his girlfriend (Millie Rose Heywood). An instant later, she’s propositioned by an odious Jordan Belfort-type driving a Ferrari; in the ensuing fight, this obnoxious interloper is accidentally killed and, despite his army record, Francis is sentenced to 18 months in prison on a manslaughter conviction. The dead man’s wealthy and influential father (David Roberts) succeeds in bribing the prison warden, Jack Morrison (Field), into making life hell for his son’s killer, a goal Morrison and a couple of his guards set about with relish.
The film, which is well acted and very competently directed despite its rather too contrived plotting (including an unconvincing conclusion), is horrific in its take on how the prison system works and how Arab and Aboriginal prisoners are, in this instance, set against one another. There’s also an interesting sequence in which Francis attempts to explain to other Middle Eastern prisoners why he, of Lebanese extraction, fought in the Australian Army in Iraq.
Convict is a tough film to sit through, but a good example of completely independent cinema in this country at the moment.