Martin Scorsese’s films, for better or worse, have all been about movement. Whether realized through his swift camera movement or through the interaction of his characters and their social circles, his films have a compulsive need to propel. Growing up in a working class Italian family, cultural and socioeconomical forces have composed this propulsive movement through his films: whether it be the rags to riches narrative found in a film like Goodfellas, the brotherly camaraderie of Mean Streets, or the isolated poverty of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, there’s a sequined pattern of concerns on mobility. The Wolf of Wall Street is much like his other films: it placates itself on concerns of upward mobility. But unlike his other films, which were in large part expressions of street living, The Wolf of Wall Street is far more concerned with the aftermath of upward mobility. Scorsese essentially forsakes the low-level thugs of Mean Streets, dispenses with the useless nostalgia of gangster life in Goodfellas, and completely shits on the perceived nobility of workaday living in Bringing Out the Dead - real happiness is found when you have a lot of money and a lot of money can only be had on Wall Street.
The undercurrent to obtaining this money? Exploitation. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) starts at the bottom of the totem pole and slowly makes his way up as a broker. A brief scene involving his mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) sets the pretense for Belfort’s worldview: in a world of fake numbers and fake money, one needs to strip themselves away from work in order to function. Prescription: Lotsa coke, losta hookers, and lotsa jerking off. The rise and fall narrative hits its first fall pretty quickly as the crash of 1987 forces the newly anointed broker back on the streets. Belfort would eventually take a position at a makeshift firm centralized in a strip mall. Swindling penny stocks, the wunderkind makes use of his salesman traps to make it big as Belfort begins recruiting a band of misfits on his way to rising to the elite 1% of society.
The Wolf of Wall Street may initially seem to fall in line with the recent influx of the millennial understanding of the American Dream. One could see the girls from Spring Breakers crashing one of Belfort’s parties or the crew from The Bling Ring ransacking his mansion or yacht. But if anything, Scorsese’s film stands as the definitive primer to why the characters in those films behave the way they do - essentially The Wolf of Wall Street’s cause to Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring’s effect. With Belfort often condescendingly addressing the audience, the film is a kinetic account on the rise of excess, the acceptance of material, and justification for social and economic elitism. Some will consider Belfort’s actions as completely reprehensible. Some will see it as idealistic given the social pressures of achieving the American Dream. There’s a gray area to the film and Scorsese’s playfulness may indicate that while there are arguments supporting either side, that it’s certainly better to be rich than poor. It might be a flaccid stance to make, but Scorsese sincerely complicates the matter by setting a formal precedence through his mise en scène to address the concerns at hand within the screenplay.
To be released on Christmas Day, I can’t think of a more bitter (yet exhilarating) film to see following a season that relishes in the commercial. Spend, spend, spend. Now see why that was all a waste.