Does ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ Glorify Criminals? Yes.

wolf of wall street golden globes

It's three hours of cash, drugs and hookers -- without real consequences.

With the debate raging about whether Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” celebrates the excesses it portrays or makes a moral case against them, Variety’s Whitney Friedlander and David S. Cohen square off over the picture. Read David Cohen’s opinion here. Below is Whitney Friedlander’s take. It should be obvious, but THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Of all the New Year’s Eve events I’ve been invited to, the one I fear will be the most raucous is my co-worker’s house party. How much trouble could a bunch of twentysomething lads get into while pregaming in West L.A. before heading out to the Rose Bowl?

Did I mention it’s a “Wolf of Wall Street”-themed party?

And this is the problem with Martin Scorsese’s latest film: No matter how much he or star Leonardo DiCaprio claim to not condone Jordan Belfort’s stories of 1980s greed and excess, the movie is still three hours of cash, drugs, hookers, repeat. The lead character cons both rich and poor, ingests copious amounts of cocaine and Quaaludes, endangers the lives and welfare of everyone he knows and essentially rapes his wife. For the “Entourage” generation, it’s a celebration of this lifestyle that tells them you can either have this for a short while before you get busted (something that’s mostly glossed over in the film) or you can forever be a rundown sadsack riding the subway and only glimpsing the good life, like Kyle Chandler’s FBI agent Patrick Denham.

It’s not like antiheroes or glamorously decadent lifestyles are anything new. Forget “Great Gatsby”-themed parties; I’ve heard of “Gatsby”-themed weddings. And Daisy Buchanan’s shiny flapper dresses and headbands still inspire Fashion Week collections (and my wardrobe). Christopher Moltisanti was my favorite “Sopranos” character. This year, I appreciated the elaborate cons and costumes of “American Hustle,” and I would love to hear a compelling argument as to why “Breaking Bad” was not the best show on television.

But the difference is that all of those characters were seen facing serious consequences, even if they didn’t actually handle them well, and they suffered because of their actions. Belfort may have served his time, but — as the movie shows — he then traveled the world to teach his strategies to others who looked up to him and wanted to emulate him. Oh, and he’s also shopping his own reality TV show.

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  1. Tomomi Park says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with this article. The film sensationalized greed, drug usage, and prostitution and did a poor job portraying any real consequences for Jordan Belfort’s actions. And we know almost nothing of the victims’ stories. The movie was 3 hours of nonstop shitstorm in your face. My husband and I both walked out of the movie theater with massive headaches.
    As for those of you who applaud the movie speaking of its intricate layers of hidden meanings, here’s a news flash. Average movie goers (i.e. teens, twenty something’s) don’t think very deeply and tend to take what they see for face value. They are paying for entertainment and are usually not in the mindset to do any serious reflection. If this film had managed to accomplish anything, it was to desensitize its viewers and to further accelerate the culture of greed, selfishness and deterioration.

    • Mark Sena says:

      Then that’s the failing of the average viewer, not the film. Also I really think you’re not giving the average person enough credit.

      I’m sure the grisly scenes in movies about serial killers appeals to a small subset of people, that doesn’t mean it glorifies them.

  2. Sam says:

    Seriously variety what is your vendetta against this movie that there has to be an article every day about it? Why not also go after paranormal activity for full frontal nudity and drug use and it’s glorifying if devil worship while you are at it????? I’m so puzzled why go after a good movie and making much ado — this is a movie for adults, I think we as adults are able to differentiate and able to watch shows and not find glorification in it. It’s really like the staffers here are 100 year olds if you are more offended by sex and drugs but have no daily articles for movies that “glorify” sadistic violence.

  3. SHS says:

    It’s pretty amazing that people are interpreting the message of this film the same way they interpreted the message of Wall Street in the 80s, which is to say completely wrong. Both films condemn the acts of their main characters, but the audience doesn’t seem to understand that. After Wall Street, a whole slew of people touted ‘Greed is Good’ as a term of endearment when it was actually the opposite of what Oliver Stone intended. It’s these same people that fueled the source material for Wolf of Wall Street.

  4. tdub says:

    The bankers and traders who gutted our economy just a very few years ago were punished even less than the subject of the movie, so it’s hardly your (or our place) to criticize the movie for not being harsh enough to the subject in question. Movies are (hopefully) about the viewer making up their own moral judgement instead of yet another movie telling us how we should feel.

  5. feingarten says:

    I have to disagree with your assessment of Wolf. There are people who lead lives like this. Whether its an indictment of society remains to be seen. And is a subject for much debate. (I do not care for Scorsese’s films but here he and Leo worked well together, conveying a palpable trust.)

    Belfort was a horrible person, bilking people out of millions and failing to repay. And yes, DiCaprio’s/Scorsese did not show enough of the punishment Belfort and his cohorts received but at least they were imprisoned.

    ABSCAM was a real event and was not a joke. American Hustle treats this incident of US History as one big dress up. And this idea of scammers scamming scammers is not a unique idea. Its been done repeatedly throughout cinema.

    The Bale character in American Hustle did not even see a day in jail and is known that Rosenberg/Weinberg was duplicitous in his dealings with the FBI which were overlooked in their quest to take down politicians and other corrupt individuals. Only the Polito character (essayed beautifully by Renner) was punished, leaving Bale’s Rosenberg to retire without any repercussions as his real life counterpart has done. The Lawrence character committed suicide and this fact is conveniently not mentioned.

    So while you are busy indicting Wolf, don’t ignore the glamorized “truth” of Hustle.

  6. Matt Toomb says:

    This just highlights one of the true underlying problems of our society, the problem of idiocy. See morons watch Wolf of Wall Street and they see a glorified three hour drug fueled hooker romp, they emulate it, they have parties themed after it, and they try and be like it. Is it the movies fault that morons act like morons? A person of above average intelligence on the other hand watches Wolf of Wall Street and sees it for what it is: a comment on all of that idiocy. (It’s like the conundrum of: if you don’t think you have a crap friend in your group then you’re it…) See, what we are talking about here is satire. Some people watch stare and they take it at face value, they lack the imagination or the afterthought to see below the surface of what’s on the screen and REALLY hear what the dialogue is saying. See Scorsess’s Belfort is in what we call denial. It’s a VERY powerful coping mechanism that humans use to hide the truth from themselves. Most of the time that truth is that they are morons who lack imagination and afterthought. Scorsesse’s Belfort is what we call a narcissist, he’s not “aware” of anything or any reality other than the one he’s constructed for himself… An intricate web of lies, denials (there’s that word again), deceits, etc… All to hide the simple fact that he is a vampire from himself and others. I’m not talking about shiny sunlight teenage heart-throb vampire here, I’m talking about the real ones- the vampires that the monsters are based on- the people that feed off of the misery and loneliness and desperation of other people. The greedy, manipulative, lying blood suckers that drain our culture, our society, and our own sense of self from us. The emotional vampires that twist emotion, truths, and bull all into a seductive layer of protection between themselves and the real world. The one where people take the subway to crappy jobs every day because that’s what real non-vampire people do. Scorsess’s film doesn’t glorify it’s content, it holds it up and shine a light on it and says “What the hell are we letting these people get away with?!” That there is a level of society that is beyond the consequences that everyone else has and that’s not ok. I’m sorry if some films are challenging, symbolic, layered, and not to be taken at face value… But they’ve literally been that way for a hundred years, this entire controversy is ridiculous… And no one should ever feel bad for being a moron, they just shouldn’t try to act like they’re not… But then again that’s what this whole internet thing has done- given voice to the faceless horde of ignorance. God bless America.

  7. Sean Johnston says:

    You see, the problem is that if you think Jordan Belfort doesn’t adequately face the consequences of his immorality than the problem is actually with real life. That is the point of the movie. I have no idea why so many people are failing to grasp this.

  8. Smokeriah Joseph says:

    How can u say he had no consequences?! Did u sleep thru the part where his wife takes his children and leaves? He was a scumbag who got what he deserved and learned his lesson.

    • Smokeriah Joseph says:

      We’ll maybe not all that e deserved, but in today’s world any criminal with cash can get off with a slap on the wrist.thats America

      • Dan craig says:

        I think that was the moral of the movie, IE Crime Pays, but not for long. the whole thing played off much like Goodfellas, ie a criminal first person narrator tells about the appeal of his high-flying criminal lifestyle, and then he gets away with very little consequence other than having to live a normal life.

  9. Devin Biello says:

    Personally, I’m amazed at the people who say this film shows criminals as good people or who say the film advertises this behavior. Did anyone see Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain? That’s a film that shows those characters(criminals) as good people. The Wolf Of Wall Street is different. When the movie started Leo’s character was so drugged up when flying a helicopter. I never liked what this character did, but it’s interesting to me to see how he did his crimes. He punches his wife and almost kills his daughter. Also he did rape his wife, but the movie’s not saying “You should rape woman” It’s showing how much of a crazy person he really is. This film is incredible and I believe it’s one of this year’s best films.

    • Smokeriah Joseph says:

      I agree wholeheartedly. The film didn’t dress him up as some hero, it showed him for who he really was, and managed to be a great film while doing do

  10. Pj says:

    Finally! Someone gets it. I am especially happy that you point out the rape because I am baffled how people can walk out if that film and witness some if those acts, and declare “Most Fun in the Theater I Had All Year!” It’s pretty disturbing actually.

    • Guest says:

      Exactly. That’s sick. But again, this film largely appeals to the 15-25 demographic, and clearly they are thrilled seeing excess, lewdness, and insanity through of sex, drugs, whores, abuse for 3 hours nonstop.
      The fanbot reactions are ludicrous and somewhat disturbing.

  11. johntshea says:

    Yes, this movie is corrupting! I haven’t even seen it yet, but just the trailer fills me with an overwhelming urge to become a corrupt stock broker. When they catch me I’ll blame Hollywood.

  12. peter says:

    I am pretty sure your co-worker’s friends, at that party were a bunch of ……..(not so good people), even before the release of the movie.

  13. Tanner Chancey says:

    I think they intentionally showed that Jordan Belfort’s life turned out alright. These white collar criminals always get a slap on the wrist, but nothing serious. And today it’s even worse, they just pay a fine and move on. So I think they way they portrayed the downfall of Jordan Belfort is perfect. He did 22 months, and is now working on his comeback. Nothing bad happens to these rich criminals.

  14. Luke Schooler says:

    The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t Breaking Bad or The Sopranos. Yes, it would be nice if karma destroyed these assholes, but that’s not true. That’s not America. In America, you can be as big of an asshole as you want as long as you have the $$$ to pay for it.

  15. ITTTY IT says:

    —-SO many of these posts look like phonies form the publicity dept.

    Wall Street’s been done-to-death. Oliver Stone filled the litter box
    on this topic. Scorsese brings nothing new to the table.

    Of course he remains a ‘skilled’ film-maker —-but he has yet to
    deliver a revelation, or even charactr development beyond the
    play out of PSYCHOPATHY.


    • Guest says:

      “Wall Street’s been done-to-death. Oliver Stone filled the litter box
      on this topic. Scorsese brings nothing new to the table.”

      YES. Well said.

  16. This is ridiculous. I’m so tired of people berating a brilliant film simply because the material itself is controversial. Last year was Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s dark, cold and almost unbiased work visualized a decade-long mission to kill UBL. Yeah they tortured the prisoners, and yeah the Obama openly denied the American troops ever torture prisoners, that’s what happened. I don’t see any sort of ideology or stance behind the scenes. Then people getting angry and saying it’s a “justification of torture”. Now Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, if you read the book you’ll know Belford’s life is even more ridiculously hedonistic than the portrait in the movie. And this is a biography about this guy, what else do you expect Scorsese should put in there? Put him in prison for 50 years– which never ever happened in real life, just to please you? If you think a prick like Belford deserve way more punishment and far less attention than what you saw in the movie, well… unfortunately this is what America and possibly, the world is right now. WE glorified this kind of criminal, not Scorsese. He just presented a true story in the form of cinematic art, if you think there’s something unethical and immoral… well that’s a good thing because without this film, you might not even realize the problem could be so severe, and we really need to do something about this.

  17. Craig K says:

    I can’t take this anymore. Is everyone completely devoid of any critical thinking at the cinema nowadays? If the actions portrayed onscreen in this film are even slightly intriguing then it really says more about you, the viewer (and yes, feel free to take this as an indictment of your friends holding this party), then about Martin Scorsese’s intentions.

    As for having no consequences, everyone gets arrested, are undoubtedly barred from ever partaking in the trading business ever again, and Belfort himself has to pay half of all his earnings to the victims of his crimes. Is this totality of punishment suitable? No. And does the film accurately portray these punishments for the viewer? No. But why would a portrayal of absolute retribution be any more helpful in dissuading the obviously morally corrupt themselves who find the actions of this film to be imitable?

  18. Gary says:

    Sopranos, goodfellas, glorified the mob/organized crime lifestyle I guess, made it look cool. Breaking bad showed us all that there are big bucks to be made, cooking and selling meth.

    So naturally everyone started doing these things right…?

    It was just a movie, people. It’s there to entertain you for 3 hrs, so you can for a moment, escape reality. That is all…

    No need to analyze the movie to death.

  19. Collin says:

    Thank you Ms. Friedlander. You have the foresight that your Senior Editor does not. One of the reasons I adore cinema is its power to change corrupt social behavior and institutions. Unfortunately, Scorsese’s work seemed aimed at the bad boy, frat boy crowd, who have already taken it as their “Carpe Diem” mantra and cult favorite. Who else could endure three hours of sex and drug abuse? Robbery and rape? Sexism and greed?

    Unfortunately, this was Belfort’s film. Scorsese and DiCaprio not only did nothing to dissuade, but did plenty to encourage a new generation of unprincipled hedonists.

  20. Dennis says:

    I agree. Sure, you can defend it as “satire”–though whether it’s GOOD satire, or even good Scorcese, is another matter–but in the long run I don’t think it’s going to be taken as such by the viewers most likely to be influenced by it. Like DePalma’s “Scarface” remake, “Wolf” is destined to become a cult movie for people who won’t take it as any kind of cautionary lesson, but rather as an adolescent sex/drugs/rocknroll lifestyle lifestyle fantasy they’ll want to imitate (even if just in quoting dialogue etc.) and aspire toward. You could argue Scorcese’s gangster movies glamorize that kind of crime, too. But at least they show that the consequences (death or prison) are serious. “Wolf” suggests the consequences of ruining people’s lives via finance-world skullduggery is usually just a slap on the wrist. (Which, sadly, is usually true.) Plus, the victims themselves are completely absent from this movie. This may be a movie about people without consciences, but the movie doesn’t have a conscience, either.

    • Uhm says:

      How could it serve as a critique of that sad reality if the villains did receive a suitable punishment?

      It also wouldn’t inspire the necessary degree of anger if there was a happy ending in which the bad were actually punished for their wrong doing.

      The only people who will buy into the movie are those who already rationalize their bad behavior with the value system pushed by WSJ in particular, that the pursuit and acquisition of money is moral regardless of the means. I imagine it’s also easier for someone to decide to join a gang than become a stock broker so I don’t think we’ll see a mass influx of that particular criminal.

      Otherwise, the film will further enrage the people who already take exception to that belief and perhaps convert those who don’t already – since most of the otherwise decent people I know who buy into pro-rich propaganda aren’t actually fans of social deviance. For them, it may be eye opening. At worse, they will disregard it as liberal propaganda that misrepresents hard working citizens. They still won’t aspire to be like the characters in the film.

  21. johntshea says:

    It’s only a movie.

  22. I was actually there at some of these events in the late 90s. Stratton Oakmont was notorious for their exploits. Young and paid was the motto. We all wondered when they would get theirs. Everyone knew it would only last for a short time. Still they dwarfed the Madoff scheme. So to make the point it was like a financial mafioso story. If you were in Ny in those days it was party time just like it was shown.

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