The Wolf of Wall Street won't give you the businessJanuary 10, 2014: 11:39 AM ET
The Internet is abuzz with debate over whether Martin Scorsese's film glorifies Jordan Belfort's financial crimes -- but the movie barely shows them. In fact, it isn't really a business film at all.
By Daniel Roberts, writer-reporter
FORTUNE -- Just after Christmas, when I suggested to three friends that we go see The Wolf of Wall Street, Maddie, the lone woman in the group, refused. She wasn't objecting to the movie's treatment of her gender, its nonstop dirty language, or its graphic sex -- all of which have been extensively dissected. Her objection: She didn't want to give any money (even a tiny portion of her $12 ticket) to Jordan Belfort, who wrote the book that inspired the movie. She hates the idea that Belfort got rich from conning clients, went to jail for it, and now is again making money by selling the story of how he did it. (In truth, Belfort is required to fork over half of what he makes from the film to the victims of his crimes and claims he's chosen to give away all his payments from the movie.)
Indeed, in the few weeks since The Wolf of Wall Street hit theatres, journalists and critics have flooded the web with articles about whether the film sufficiently condemns Belfort's actions, or whether it irresponsibly invites us to celebrate him.
The irony, though, is that Martin Scorsese's movie really doesn't tell the story of exactly how Belfort landed in jail. It spends very little of its three-hour running time on what he was doing illegally. In that regard, and contrary to how it looks from trailers, it isn't much of a business movie.
When The Wolf of Wall Street opens, we get a splashy montage of the spoils of quick wealth: giant mansion; opulent yacht; and Leo DiCaprio, as Belfort, speeding in his convertible while his trophy wife, er, attends to him. Then we rewind. We watch Belfort land a job as a stockbroker with Rothschild; he's soon laid off and finds a job in Long Island with a penny-stock outfit called Investors Center. It's at these stints that we get our only glimpses in the film of Belfort doing actual business: We see him fast-talking, selling some chump a ton of shares in a no-name stock that comes with a 50% commission for the broker. We see him coaching colleagues on how to do it.
By the time Stratton Oakmont moves out of the garage and into real offices, the movie is pretty much done showing us the mechanics of how Belfort got rich. It's interested only in the extravagance of his wealth. Sure, much of the movie takes place in Stratton's offices, but never to show people conducting business. Wolf of Wall Street would have you think new employees were ushered straight to the back room for drugs and hookers without ever having to earn any money. This is a film about a drug addict. It's a film for which, appropriately, the lead actress slugged three tequila shots before shooting a big scene.
What they were actually doing at Stratton Oakmont was very simple, a variation on what many call "pump and dump." Stratton would push penny stocks on unwitting investors to drive the price up, then sell its own holdings and reap the profit. If you don't already know about such schemes you're not going to learn about it from this movie beyond the scripted sales pitch Belfort creates. The movie version of Belfort starts to explain some of his machinations directly to the camera only to interrupt himself and say "But you don't care about any of this. All you care about is whether we made a shitload of money." In fact, the "dump" half of the equation is almost completely absent. We never see Belfort or his people selling off equities like crazy. (They do it very late in the film with the Steve Madden (SHOO) stock they brought public; that's about it.)
The Wolf of Wall Street is no more about Wall Street than Blow is about cocaine. (Wall Street, Too Big to Fail -- these are movies about Wall Street.) It's a portrait of a man who goes absolutely insane on his wealth: drugs, drugs, sex, and more drugs. The title and marketing of the movie have often been misleading: It isn't about a stock swindler bringing the market to its knees, but a guy who becomes rapidly indulgent thanks to having made a lot of money in a short time -- how he made that money is treated as almost irrelevant. The character in the film could just as easily have gotten rich from selling an Internet startup or from an inheritance.
In this movie, Jordan Belfort could have been a young mafia guy like drugged-out Christopher Moltisanti from The Sopranos. Questions about whether the film condones or condemns Belfort's financial crimes are pointless because the movie doesn't care. For proof of that indifference, look no further than this strange video testimonial DiCaprio recorded for Belfort in August: "Jordan stands as a shining example of the transformative qualities of ambition and hard work," he says. Ambition, okay. Somehow the hard work part was left out of the movie.
A more fitting title for the movie (and book) would have been The Wolf of Quaaludes. (Besides, Danny Porush, upon whom Jonah Hill's character Donnie Azoff is based, told Mother Jones he doesn't recall anyone ever calling Belfort a wolf; the real-life Forbes profile of Belfort -- unlike the one depicted in the movie -- did not use the nickname at all.)
So what's a moviegoer hungry for a good business flick to do? Let us direct you to A Hijacking, a Danish film released in the U.S. last June that didn't get the attention it deserves. The movie's plot mirrors Captain Phillips -- Somali pirates hijack a cargo ship -- but with a key difference: More than half of the movie focuses on the ship company's CEO, holed away in his safe office, who takes it into his own hands (against expert advice) to lead negotiations with the hijackers by phone and fax. Once the ship gets taken hostage early on, nothing much changes on the boat, but the action at corporate HQ is thrilling as top exec Peter Ludvigsen deals with pressure from the board of directors to handle the crisis not as a matter of life and death but as a business transaction aimed at saving money. Watching him break down is difficult and fascinating, and raises important ethical questions about doing business -- questions The Wolf of Wall Street isn't interested in.
In addition to the classics you know, like Barbarians at the Gate and Pirates of Silicon Valley, there are other modern movies that do give viewers a lot of actual business. In Good Company, from 2004, was about a good-guy salesman pushing print ads for Sports America who suddenly has to answer to a flashy young suit when the little media company gets bought out by Globecom. The movie looks like a romance between Topher Grace and Scarlett Johansson, but that relationship ends fast, and we see the real story is an old-school businessman trying to stay afloat through consolidation in a struggling industry. The hilarious scene in which much-revered "Teddy K!" (Malcolm McDowell) visits the office to discuss synergy ought to be more famous than it is.
Will Smith's 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness, too, is a legitimate business flick, also about a stockbroker, also based on a true story: When Chris Gardner lands an internship at Dean Witter we get long scenes of Gardner busting his butt to sell to clients any way he can: by phone, in person, at a 49ers game. Even P.T. Anderson's 2007 epic There Will Be Blood is more concerned with the mechanics of building a business than Wolf is. Daniel Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainview builds his oil empire one town at a time, and it costs him everything: At the end he is a miserable murderer alone in his giant house, lying on the floor of his bowling alley, screaming for his butler. (His punishment, it seems, is much more dire than Belfort's in Wolf.) Up in the Air, about a corporate downsizer, devotes large chunks of screen time to the gritty reality of its protagonist's work firing people and is sensitive to the human toll.
Say what you will about The Wolf of Wall Street and its celebration of excess -- just don't head to the theatre looking for a story of Wall Street greed and corporate mischief. The movie stays pretty true to Belfort's book, which is also more focused on the wealth than on how he got it. It's no accident that the phrase "penny stock" appears in the book only eight times. "Coke" and "'ludes?" About 50 times each.