“Wolf of Wall Street,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and Internet Porn

There’s something about the discussion surrounding Wolf of Wall Street that feels awfully familiar. Wasn’t it around this time last year that we were all fiercely debating the morality of another Oscar hopeful? At that time, it was Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of torture in the War on Terror that made us choose sides. This year, it’s WoWS and its brazen, jubilant, consequence-free portrayal of a crooked financial firm in the 1980s. Both films have inserted themselves into divisive political debates over the very character of America, so it should surprise no one that they have garnered controversy; frankly, I would be skeptical of anyone who watched these films and did not have an emotional reaction. But the outrage over them is due to a particular choice made by their filmmakers: neither ZD30 nor WoWS spells out its morality for its audience. Instead, they ask us to decide, and so viewers unconsciously imprint their own morality onto the films, which means we defend that perspective even more fiercely when someone disagrees. The ensuing problem is that they inspire debate not discussion, and no one really ever changes their mind.

But I’m trying. I had a viscerally negative reaction to Zero Dark Thirty last year but then came to appreciate its deceptively inquisitive nature. I have a feeling that my perception of Wolf of Wall Street may shift as well, but here’s where I’m at today.

Despite what Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese have said in interviews, WoWS is not a cautionary tale. The first half of the film is enormously fun to watch; Jordan Belfort and his cronies throw one long frat party – and we’re the guests of honor – that involves drugs, prostitution, sports cars, midget-tossing, live-goldfish-eating, and making loads of money. Belfort never suffers for his crimes, not really. He has one dark moment – after he physically assaults his wife and tries to kidnap his daughter – when he seems to be grappling with his crimes, but society never punishes him. He serves three years in a country club prison and then gets a job as a sales trainer/motivational speaker. It’s there that the film ends, but it’s impossible to divorce what happens onscreen from what happened next: Belfort writes a memoir, gets paid for the film rights, is portrayed by one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, and starts pitching a reality show based on his newfound fame.

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It is not a cautionary tale because Belfort never gets punished and Scorsese makes no moral judgment; indeed, he allows him to tell his own story with no shift in perspective to his wife or child, not even for a second. The only way that he suffers from his moral and criminal failings is that he doesn’t get to keep doing them; the never-ending party finally has to end. In this way, he shifts the moral judgment to the viewer, forcing us to grapple with the events depicted onscreen and connect them to the crimes still being perpetrated by Wall Street firms today.

Is this artistically justifiable? Absolutely. Is it also irresponsible? I think so.

Scorsese may have intended to hold a fun-house mirror up to the frat-boy culture on Wall Street, but I’m not sure that’s the film we need right now. Over the past few years, we have had ample opportunity to peer behind the curtains of the financial industry, from the shamelessly guilt-free testimony by the likes of Jamie Dimon at Congressional hearings to documentaries like Inside Job that show the irresponsible, even criminal lending practices led to the 2008 financial collapse. Why do we need a dramatization of it that not only lets its hero go scot-free but even revels in the very practices that destroyed lives?

To discerning viewers, such cinematic depictions of amoral behavior can be harmless or even edifying, but in the wrong hands, they can be hugely destructive. If you need proof, consider Belfort himself, who has acknowleged in interviews he was inspired to be a stockbroker by another film that supposedly condemned the reckless culture of the financial industry: 1987’s Wall Street. Considering that Oliver Stone’s film actually dramatized the impact of Gordon Gekko’s greed on the working man, it is worth considering how much more economic damage Wolf of Wall Street might inspire.

I know there are many of you out there who are disinterested in that argument. Some surely believe it is an artist’s prerogative to create as he sees fit, and that it’s not his job to worry about the impact it might have on society. But Scorsese works so hard to make Belfort’s antics entertaining – with his dynamic camera moves, pleasing pop music cues, and gratuitous female nudity – that it seems unfair to judge us for being entertained. As a result, I saw Wolf of Wall Street as the cinematic version of the bully who grabs your hand, hits you with it, and asks “Why are you hitting yourself?” Scorsese uses every trick in his directorial book to make us sympathize with Belfort – not with his deeds, but with his personality – and then he implicitly chastises us, especially in the film’s telling final shot, for doing just that.

However, now it’s time for a gut check: it worked on me. Part of why I was disgusted at WoWS is because I really enjoyed it in parts. Then again, I am Belfort’s target audience. I am a young, white American male who grew up with lots of kids who are now working on Wall Street. Had I a smidge less idealism, I might be working there myself, making loads of money. And so I enjoyed WoWS in the same way I would enjoy a bloody action movie or maybe a few minutes of internet pornography. As a fantasy.  A guilty pleasure, at best.

For those of you who agree with me, do us all a favor: don’t argue that the film should be banned or shouldn’t have been made at all. Poor taste, I think all film lovers would agree, is the cost of freedom. But we must also acknowledge that any piece of media that depicts hurtful behavior without any moral judgment can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and that it is doubly dangerous when people provide moral justification for it by calling it a cautionary tale. My personal journey is to keep thinking about Wolf of Wall Street and examine why I was so entertained by it. I can only hope other discerning viewers will do the same.

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