The amorality of modern business, and of the finance industry in particular, has been a common theme in Hollywood over the years (see also Ethics on Screen 2 and 6). The Wolf of Wall Street ramps up the intensity with a romp through the coke-snorting, pill-popping, sex-fuelled debauchery of convicted stock swindler Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie is based on Belfort’s memoir, describing how he built a multi-million dollar trading firm, Stratton Oakmont, in the 1990s and defrauded millions of dollars from unsuspecting investors in the process. The movie presents a first-person narrative from Belfort, taking us from his beginnings as a trainee at a big Wall Street firm in the late 1980s right through to his ultimate conviction for money laundering and securities fraud in the early 2000s. Along the way he loses his job as a newly minted trader as a result of the Black Monday stock crash of 1987, and ends up selling penny stocks in a ramshackle trading operation in a strip mall in Long Island. Despite the down-at-heel surroundings, Belfort’s talent for selling largely worthless stocks to unwary investors soon has him pulling in thousands of dollars in commission every week, to the amazement of his co-workers. Before long, Belfort starts up his own trading firm along with his partner Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill), who he befriends after Azoff marvels at how much money Belfort seems to be making, and quits his job on the spot. Their first hires are a bunch of Belfort’s old friends, whose most relevant business experience to date involves selling drugs—talents that Belfort soon shapes into a potent, if decidedly unscrupulous, sales force. The firm prospers, growing to become a booming trading floor employing more than a 1,000 brokers, with ever more wealthy clients, and a remarkable ability to generate enormous profits out of seemingly thin air. They perfect a form of fraud known as ‘pump and dump’ which involves buying up cheap stock, talking it up to gullible investors, and then selling it high and reaping in the commissions. DiCaprio’s Belfort is a charismatic, largerthan-life personality; his talent for selling worthless stock is matched only by his appetite for money, drugs, and sex. The Bacchanalian lifestyle of Belfort and his traders makes for entertaining, if at times somewhat uneasy, viewing, but it also serves to illustrate the supposed moral bankruptcy of the finance industry. The mantra is money—‘enough of this shit’ll make you invincible’ claims Belfort. ‘See money doesn’t just buy you a better life, better food, better cars, better pussy, it also makes you a better person’. The movie shows Stratton Oakmont as a wild, testosterone-driven environment, where there is no place for the faint of heart or those with a conscience. The crazed culture of the trading room crowds out any potential concern for the unfortunate investors who they pressurize into ill-advised deals. As the real-life Belfort says in his book on which the movie is based: ‘It was the essence of the mighty roar, and it cut through everything. It intoxicated you. It seduced you! It fucking liberated you! It helped you achieve goals you never dreamed yourself capable of! And it swept everyone away, especially me.’ Nowhere is this ‘mighty roar’ more evident that in the traders’ language—the movie allegedly holds a record for the most utterances of the word ‘fuck’ in a non-documentary feature film—and the poor treatment meted out to women—the main female roles in the film being either those of the longsuffering wives of Belfort and his friends or the many prostitutes that service the traders in their wild parties. Director, Martin Scorsese, who is perhaps best known for his gangster epics such as Goodfellas, in fact presents Wall Street in much the same way that he does the mafia— a system of organized crime made up of wisecracking tough guys who enjoy a life of excess whilst maintaining a casual disregard for the law and anyone outside the close-knit ‘family’ of the organization. Therefore, despite its ethically charged subject material, some critics have accused The Wolf of Wall Street of being morally ambivalent and glamorizing rather than condemning Belfort’s antics. Certainly the film avoids any earnest moralizing, choosing instead to adopt a more darkly comic approach. Notably, DiCaprio won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Belfort in the category of Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy rather than the more usual Best Actor in a Drama award. Perhaps then it is no surprise that the film met with an enthusiastic mainstream audience. It brought the legendary director his bestever box office return. And even the supposed villains of the piece, the traders in the world’s financial capitals, reportedly loved the movie. Rather than being dismayed by their representation as incorrigible cheats, bankers set up special screenings of the movie, whooping and cheering Belfort’s worst excesses. As one reporter concluded: ‘it would be a real shame if Martin Scorsese just accidentally inspired the future Jordan Belforts of the world.’

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