Sunday, February 16, 2014

Everyone a Speculator

The anti-Gatsby
To watch Martin Scorsese's unbridled Bacchanalia, The Wolf of Wall Street, the 80s and 90s were just one big fuckfest for stockbrokers in New York.  He follows the life of Jordan Belfort, a real life figure through the eyes of Leonardo DiCaprio, as a kind of anti-Gatsby.  It wasn't power or even prestige Jordan was after, but rather the pursuit of money and all the pleasures it provides.  Daisy in this case was a former Miller Light girl who now had her own lingerie line.

The narrative is filled with many memorable lines, probably taken from the book, and destined to be aped, much like Gordon Gekko's quotes from Oliver Stone's 1987 Wall Street, which prophetically took place the same year the stock market crashed.  This is where this new movie begins, so some might see it as a sequel of sorts, showing how young stockbrockers picked up the pieces, in this case penny stocks, and moved on.

The world is my oyster
Belfort apparently made quite a name for himself but this was the first time I heard of him.  I thought Scorsese had come up with his own interpretation of the life and times of Michael Milken, the fastest any man had come to amassing his first billion (four years) before the cybertech age.  Jordan was apparently encouraged by Tommy Chong to pen his memoirs while in prison, and his story previously served as the inspiration for Boiler Room, a much less glamorous movie led by Ben Affleck.

It reminded me a lot of Glengarry Glen Ross, especially when DiCaprio's Jordan is exhorting his traders to push the Steve Madden IPO, but Scorsese pumps up the volume and turns this one into a wild ride much like De Palma's classic Scarface, as his Belfort snorts his way to the top of Wall Street, not much unlike Tony Montana.   A success story in hyper drive.

The most amusing aspect of this film is the evangelical quality.  Jordan becomes a kind of latter day saint in the eyes of his disciples, a group of 20 he literally picks off the street, who become loyal to him as he lets them in on his trading secrets.  He moves from taking advantage of the average joe to fleecing the rich on penny stocks which were virtually unregulated at the time.  He pumps up his crew like a motivational speaker, creating a excessively crude environment in his office where virtually anything goes.  He had to ban sex in he bathrooms because it had gotten out of control.  Ultimately, Donnie Azoff, as played by Jonah Hill, proves to be his Judas Iscariot.

Scorsese talking sex
Drugs and sex figure prominently in this film.  Not only are there copious acts of sex, but "fuck" was apparently uttered a record 500 times, earning the film an NC-17 rating.  It seemed like it was just one big orgy with these young fat cats walking around with rolls of Ben Franklins in their pockets, pushing penny stocks on an unsuspecting public which was desperate for any bit of change during the malingering recession.  This turned into a wild period of speculation in the 90s, fueling a hi-tech boom that hit its bubble around 1998, when it eventually all caught up to Belfort, and he was indicted for securities fraud and money laundering.

You figure the real Jordan was much more prosaic.  DiCaprio appears to roll in the billions with a yacht that makes him look like a James Bond villain, whereas the real Belfort apparently was only able to strip about $200 million off his clients, and forced to pay back half in restitution.  Apparently, he never got much beyond $10 million before his probation was over and is now fighting attempts to take the profits from his books and movie rights.

It's not like this film sheds any light on the period.  Instead, Scorsese revels in the conspicuous display of wealth much like he did in Casino.  I guess Kyle Chandler offers some kind of moral center as FBI agent Patrick Denham, but he plays his role with the deadpan quality of a 40s private dick.  Scorsese has these first-person narratives down pat and stings you along for nearly 3 hours on Jordan Belfort's wild ride.

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