The Antagonists of my Dreams: The Wolf of Wall Street, Rob Ford, and Dark Lords in Fantasy

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Poster for The Wolf of Wall Street with DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort.

This gets political, fair warning.

So, I must admit I really enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street [Spoiler Alert]. In some ways I feel that it was a movie made just for me. You see I grew up in the eighties, and even at a young age I was very aware of the direction that rampant capitalistic excess would take our society (scoff if you wish, it seems pretty obvious to me). Now that I am an adult, living in the ongoing aftermath of the latest hangover of the ongoing orgy of greed, I find it gratifying to see a major film-maker who so obviously shares my disgust with people like Jordan Belfort, the narrator of the Wolf of Wall Street.

Although the movie is based on a book by Jordan Belfort about his own life, and many scenes in the movie are based around videos that he recorded (some of which you can see on youtube, interestingly) the movie drips with contempt for the main character:

  • Belfort is never shown as doing anything remotely good with his money in movie. It all goes to excess and self indulgence, most of it buying drugs, women, cars, and other material possessions. While he loves to throw a good party, he never seems satisfied, not does he do anything really worthy with all that cash.
  • Belfort is unequivocally shown as getting his money by duping others. He has nothing but contempt for his “clients”. The key scene here is when he is teaching his new employees how to lie to sell certain stocks by sticking to a particular script. The whole time he is talking to the client while demonstrating this method he is giving the phone the finger and mocking the person who he is taking money from.
  • Belfort’s first wife is the type of woman ‘real’ men dream of. When he loses his first job she is willing to support him 100% while he gets back on his feet, even taking extra shifts to do so. In fact she helps him find the job that gets him back on his feet. He repays this woman by cheating on her with a woman who was somewhat more attractive physically, but has the personality of a greedy cheese grater and shares Belfort’s bottomless desire for material gratification. He offers his supportive, wonderful first wife no explanation of his behavior and she simply disappears from his life when she learns of his cowardly lack of faith. He never seems to realize he has done something wrong. Utterly disgusting.
  • When things go south with wife #2 he hits her. Pretty pathetic.
  • Belfort endangers the life of his child by kidnapping her while messed up and crashing his Ferrari (again) almost killing both of them.
  • Belfort shows more loyalty to his cronies than anyone in his family. His relationship with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) is such that even when Donnie screws up his life in a failed bid to hide money, Jordan goes out of his way to warn him about the FBI sting, passing him a note that says he is wearing a wire. He shows more loyalty to this jackass than anyone else, even though it costs him time and time again.
  • The drug use. Belfort’s endless addiction to drugs might seem like “paying the cost to be the boss” initially, but in the movies climactic scenes it reduces him to a laughable, helpless idiot who is only able to function because he is rich enough to cover it up and pay for lawyers who keep him out of trouble for driving while high and so on. DiCaprio’s acting is beyond brilliant here; if you’ve ever been the sober person at a party where everyone is obnoxiously drunk, you know what I mean. Belfort’s drug use seems childish by hour three.
  • The Misogyny. Belfort and his cronies treat women like whores and trophies. Not only that but they encourage their female colleagues to do the same. Belfort is never shown having a normal conversation with a woman, even his wisecracking assistant after his first wife leaves him. He views women mostly as objects. This is beautifully demonstrated when he meets up with his second wife’s aunt so he can get her help hiding money. Jordan is so incapable of relating to a woman as a human being that when aunt Emma strikes up a fairly normal conversation with him he thinks she is hitting on him.
  • Naturally he shows contempt for the law, but that is not necessarily a bad quality in a protagonist.

The only positive quality that Belfort demonstrates is a desire to succeed at all costs. The costs of his actions are hinted at throughout the movie, and directly shown in the brutal subway scene where we see the FBI detective who works like a mad fiend to catch him sink back into his seat looking at all the tired working class people around him, shaking his head at Belfort’s prison sentence.

Yet this ruthless ambition, combined with his success, attracts followers for Belfort, like moths to a candle. These, the director seems to show, might be the real problem, willing to support such men even after they have been revealed to be frauds, cheats, and scum in the hopes of gaining wealth. Instead they are just feeding the cycle, and deep down Belfort probably sees them in the same way that he saw his previous clients — his current source of cash.

I love this movie because I love to hate people like Jordan Belfort.

The whole story reminds me a great deal of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his supporters. Drugs, Booze, outright lies, and even misogyny. Yet Ford enjoys a core of fanatical support even now because of the bravado he exudes and his apparent success. Some people are willing to swallow his lies, even though he seems comically villainous to others, like a villain from a bad storybook. It is the same with Silvio Berlusconi and so on. I’m sure these people all have stories that justify their behaviour; I’m equally sure it doesn’t matter. Their actions paint a picture that overshadows any potential sympathy from sources outside their cultish followings.

All of this leads me back to Tolkien and Sauron, and other so called Dark Lords. Much of recent fantasy has been a meditation on villainy and the motivations of black-hearted anti-heroes. Tolkien often gets bashed for creating an opaque caricature of a villain in Sauron, generally by people who haven’t read deeply enough. Then again in a world where people idolize Rob Ford and Jordan Belfort do you really need justification for Sauron and his army of orcs. And doesn’t that have some ugly implications…

I think so...

I think so…

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