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The Wolf of Wall Street – A Self-portrait

It is all on the shady side – from small crooks in Mean Streets over to mafia bosses in Goodfellas straight to the bankers of Wall Street. Nominated for five Oscars, Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Wolf of Wall Street took seven years to be made and is considered to be one of the best films of 2013. Leonardo DiCaprio had won the rights over Brad Pitt, produced the film and assembled a team including Scorsese and Boardwalk Empire-creator Terence Winter. Based on the memoir of the banker Jordan Belfort, the film is a story about greed, excess and power. The real-life character Belfort had run a Wall Street company engaging in security fraud and corruption in the 1990’s – a present-day criminal and typical Scorsese character. The film shows what we knew all along since the financial crisis. The collapse of many banks and the term banker had become a synonymous for criminal in the public eye.

The Wolf of Wall Street entertains its viewers for three epic hours. Scorsese’s film is well paced and cut, but also filled with sex, drugs and all of the stuff that a modern day banker on Wall Street seemingly needs. The dimension of excess as portrayed in the film is apparently due to the film’s fidelity to the memoir. This material excess translates into action and mayhem on screen.

Despite being the producer of the film, DiCaprio pulls off a brilliant performance. The scenes with co-star Jonah Hill as Donnie are especially excellent. Both seem to embody the continuous madness in the film, but are still able to work as a harmonious couple throughout the chaos. The Wolf of Wall Street is a gigantic production with hundreds of extras, crashing boats and helicopters and plenty of nudity that truly takes the viewer into the various addictions Belfort had, but unfortunately allows for no character development or psychological insights that would suggest any sense of morality. But that would be a different film and made by another director. The typical Scorsese voice-over takes on the narrative and ensures that there is no ambiguity to the glamorising and fetishizing of the Wall Street world. The visuals and cinematography are stunning, but become a mere underlining.

Already in Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and Casino, Scorsese had been glamorising violence and criminal activity. Both the director and the producer have stated the need to authentically present this unknown world. But actually it is not that unknown to the screen. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street films were perhaps visually less excessive, but went deeper into the shadow world of Wall Street and were therefore more insightful.

However, by the end of the film everybody seemingly gets what what is deserved and the real Jordan Belfort smiles into the camera during his cameo appearance. His eyes seem to tell us: “Thank you for elevating me to a rock star level and making me rich for the second time”. There is no doubt that The Wolf of Wall Street is entertaining, well made and fun to watch. But the film is what it is – a self-glamorising self-portrait of a super-rich banker.

About Peter Schimke

Peter Schimke is a freelance writer currently based in Singapore. Before moving there, he has lived in Germany, England, New Zealand, Japan, Spain and the Netherlands. He is the author of the novel Beyond Blue and the creator of 1030 Productions. Peter has a huge interest in contemporary aesthetics and the art of skateboarding.

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