“Danny, if you want to eat all of that chocolate, go ahead, but don’t come complaining to me when you get sick and throw up all over your fancy new shoes.” [The father goes inside to have intelligent conversation with the adults.]
The preceding anecdote strings together the general tone of Scorsese and DiCaprio’s widely galling motion picture presentation, The Wolf of Wall Street. Among numerous circulating complaints fret the displeasures at having sat through three hours of Danny eating much, much too much chocolate, and having, in fact, violently thrown up all over his fancy new shoes. Over the extended term of exuberance and come-downs, one is nudged back and forth between understanding one’s own life as far too boring and far more livable. One infamous film-child of Scorsese’s does not cease to make its appearance over and over again within this satire that has miffed so many. The parallels stretch beyond that of form, beyond dramatic bildungsroman pulsating with the corrupted anti-hero. Really, The Wolf of Wall Street was conceived to function as a contemporary white-collar crime panorama, exactly analogous to Goodfellas. Not permitting one film to illuminate nuance in the other would seem a crime in its own critical terms. Once this is done, it is a bit jarring to find that the tribal unity of the goodfellas may have stronger claims to morality than those of The Wolf of Wall Street.
Allowing that one has already sat through the epic mob fiction which now helps define, with unmatched finesse, the primary thrust of an entire genre, the mere suggestion that these two films relate beyond the word “Scorsese” becomes immediately appealing and obvious. On that word, however, knowing a priori that Scorsese’s creative eminence is at large in both films undeniably informs this thesis, establishing a ready-made narrative framework for the viewer. Part of that framework, one girdled by Goodfellas, is the narrative mode, through which Jordan Belfort and Henry Hill each set about telling you his story in first-person, how he started out, what led him to the scrummy business you’ve been promised to find him involved in, and, after the roof falls in and the sun begins to set, how he retrospectively feels about his many exploits. In each film, Belfort and Hill are able to fortify a eunoia with the viewer that smacks more of reminiscence than repentance, but nevertheless, the close-contact technique compels viewers to hold stock in the fate of the narrator.
It’s worth specifying that in the beginnings of the respective films, where Henry Hill says “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Jordan Belfort says, “The year I turned 26 I made $49 million dollars which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.” Thus, where one says, “That’s absurd. How did you come to this conclusion?” to Hill, one replies to Belfort, “That’s absurd. You’re an asshole.” The opening one-liners don’t assimilate the viewer into the world of the storyline as much as they immediately place the viewer, shriekingly, in the hazard of the narrator’s world view. Of more pressing import, what’s revealed of the narrator through each of his respective declarations projects the subtle but convincing difference between Hill and Belfort: Hill wants to be a part of a tribe; Belfort wants to establish his own. This appears to echo throughout: in relation to peers, Belfort is more audacious than Hill. Belfort is the leader, Hill is the second mate, the fat cat flunky. Where Hill “could never be made because [he] had Irish blood,” Belfort “made” himself. Signaling his refusal to quietly escape indictment on federal charges, Belfort thunders, more in the style of Tony Montana than of Henry Hill, “They’re gonna need to send in the National Guard to take me out, cause I ain’t going nowhere!” Despite this salient distinction, Jordan Belfort and Henry Hill are at the core, a single kind of stock character. Similar to Tony Montana and Michael Corleone, both Belfort and Hill are expressions of the recognizable Macbeth-complex, harboring ambition and an unhinged egocentrism that permits rampant moral decrepitude.
For some, the profusion of paid-for sex, addictive white powders and chemical,“lude-” induced mania in The Wolf of Wall Street is difficult to understand as something more than a box office insurance policy vested with admiring young audiences. Indeed, no one can deny that preexisting anticipations tend to excite a seed of curiosity within all of us, however noisome some ultimately find the three-hour movie event. But these plot elements, in their ubiquity, actually begin to make fun of themselves. Even more, there is something cartoonish in the way Belfort narrates his own excesses as they unfold, going as far as to make his intoxicated operation of a motor vehicle into a comedic prop with which to surprise the viewer into finding that his white Lamborghini Countach did not make it home unscathed as originally told, but had been driven into numerous other cars and objects on the way back to the mansion. Goodfellas, a flick laced with cocaine and sexual assignations, frames its contemporary edition as the overdosed progeny, amping-up every turn, where one hundred jet-set Sybarites join the “Mile-high Club” in partially suspended animation, as if to exclaim, “If you thought the 60’s were crazy, you should see what kids are doing nowadays.”
The boys and girls of Stratton Oakmont have built, like the gangsters in Goodfellas, a diorama within which to play, where the only law is the will of the powerful, e.g. Jordan Belfort, Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill) and other zealots. “Moving the money from the clients pocket to your pocket,” as it turns out, incites such a buzz, and the side effects become so fantastic, that there are almost no defectors from the island of Stratton Oakmont. Upon watching the activities of the office and its occupants, viewers are entreated to a hypothesis about mob hysteria, how it sparks into being, how it grows into a blaze, and how it consumes those involved. From the outside, Belfort et al are profligate children reminiscent of those young British youths bewitched by their own aloneness, in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. From the inside, they are safely housed within the moral enclosure they’ve built for themselves, consciences protected by conspiratorial ascension. The few who do lean from the law are excoriated in front of the whole of the mob, their deviant values made ridiculous, and they are cast from the island: when an employee makes an attempt to care for his goldfish on an important religious holiday, i.e. the day Steve Madden is brought public, Donnie Azoff ends his excommunicating tirade by gulping down the article of offense. Notice that even that which is useless and ridiculous is consumed, as ravenous hunger is the central law that governs all activities at Stratton Oakmont; it is the law of the tribe, the law established by Belfort.
This is where The Wolf of Wall Street pushes the moral boundaries established by Goodfellas. Mob hysteria helps define the inexorable dramatic tension that undergirds Goodfellas. There is a scene where Tommy DiVito (Joe Pesci), in his customary gusto, after calling for a drink, says to his server, “What am I, a mirage?…You know Spider, you’re a fuckin’ mumbling stuttering little fuck. You know that?…No, you ain’t alright Spider.” Everyone at the card table knows that Spider is a harmless, albeit aloof, young barman who would have brought Tommy his cocktail if he’d only understood the drink order. Tommy, glistening with showmanship, flays Spider with insults and then shoots him in the leg, all to the hysterical laughter of his cohort. The use of lethal weaponry, tantamount to an alarming amorality, is a consequence of violating mob law that does not find its way into the fleecing, goldfish-eating ways of The Wolf of Wall Street. Yet, in a mob movie, viewers expect that people are going to be shot, that there will be ugly murders and guns; similarly, it can be taken as premise that in The Wolf of Wall Street, viewers are right to expect the vile exploitation of financial markets and information asymmetry. Commercial previews establish expectations and are disseminated as contractual terms which consumers can either accept by purchasing a ticket or decline by not purchasing a ticket.
Taking this into consideration, where The Wolf of Wall Street’s law of consumption begins to usurp Goodfellas in its tribal baseness is when Belfort and his friends discover the urge to begin consuming other people. The consumption does not manifest in the form of cannibalism or murder, but in the twisted pursuit of novel entertainment. After sex and Champagne and cars and the rest, the only amusing good left to consume is the dignity and individuality of people. Somewhere mid-way through the film, a female employee is coerced into shaving her head for cash, symbolic of her sacrifice of personal identity to endorse the reductive law of the tribe. Belfort does suggest that she will be using the reward to fund a surgical procedure, the implantation of artificial mammary glands, though this consumptive decision is a directive of Belfort’s, suiting his own concept of female beauty, and has no redeeming individuality-sponsoring consequences.
It is when the tribe of Stratton Oakmont begins suiting small people with Velcro and flinging them against a fuzzy dartboard that delusory solipsism starts to saturate the actions of characters. It’s a marked attempt to abolish traces of rule outside of the tribe, to spit in the face of probity and anything resembling conventional citizenry, to convert the bizarre whim, in the desperate effort of mining for novel ways to consume, into cash-lashed reality. The outside world finding it “wrong” only validates the pursuit. The tossing of littler people, and the preceding roundtable discussion concerning the rules for handling these individuals conceived as alien, are more disturbing than Tommy shooting Spider to preserve the image of his being a loose cannon, because guns, blood and high tempers are expected in mob movies; treating people of an already pestered minority like “lawn darts” and de-humanizing them ad nausium is expected in no movie. Aligning this buffoonery with Wall Street certainly exerts political commentary in a fashion consistent with the whole of the film. What’s more is that it permits a tribalism which incites, not the death of people (e.g. murder), but the death of individuals, perhaps leaving behind less of the person than death itself; after all, who’s to protect a person’s legacy after death if the person to which the legacy belongs has cauterized all traces of individual identity?
The underlying revenue model of telephoning the wealthiest one-percent of Americans and pouring honey into their ears until they hand over the investment principal needed to collect a fee – and no will absolutely not be taken for an answer – is analogous to the steeling and whacking which takes place in Goodfellas. Both films exhibit various crimes: inThe Wolf of Wall Street, the crimes are semi-legal but immoral; in the Goodfellas, the crimes are illegal and immoral. The crimes of the former cast a different kind of shadow over society than the crimes of the illegal and the immoral. A state that creates laws will theoretically always bear the blemish of those who deviate from the laws. Curiously, The Wolf of Wall Street examines how citizens may act when attempting to work within the law or the grey area of legal uncertainty. The film reveals how insidious the space around the law can be and just how morally bankrupt a law of government will permit citizens to be. Although the “pump and dump” method of insider trading was and is illegal, there is much that Stratton Oakmont did that was not explicitly illegal on its own terms, such as IPO-ing Steve Madden, marketing blue chips and pushing penny stocks. Viewers witness the moral relativism of Goodfellas which they, in application, find despicable, but they’re able to recalibrate their understanding of good and bad for the term of the film, under the pretense that it’s a film about bad guys acting outside of the law. The Wolf of Wall Street elaborates upon the notion that laws are insufficient and cannot be relied upon for foundational moral judgment.
Both films end with each of the antiheros ratting out their friends in exchange for punitive clemency. For Henry Hill, this is a most fetid betrayal of the greatest two values that can be learned in life, as instructed by Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) in synonymous parallelism, “never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” Sitting through the courtroom scene in which once fatherly Pauli Cicero glares disgusted at Hill as he sings for the prosecution is uncomfortable, to say the least. Here again, where the goodfella, Hill, is plainly bad in relation to the laws of his tribe, Belfort has done no wrong. The only rule in Belfort’s world is to make as much money as possible, and, ostensibly, to do whatever the hell one wants in the meantime. When Belfort, the FBI mole, snitches on his friends, in actuality, he violates no law of his tribe. Instead, he is in pursuit of assuring that the single law of Stratton Oakmont is abided, that he retains as much personal wealth as possible, and in the end, is better in a position to make more money attributing to decreased jail time. Belfort’s “What do I need to do?” concession to the FBI stultifies the lessons of Jimmy Conway. Yes, the goodfellas may gun down their business partners’ wives on Sunday afternoons in order that the “trash” be taken out, but they have a code that at some level protects people and relationships; Belfort and his friends have no such code – only a law directing the amassment of wealth to consume, one which pays no attention to human coalition or conduct outside of the diorama.
Finally, I am not vexed by prodigious sexual imagery of beautiful women, and only mild torment confronts me in the realization that my interactions with them are to be somewhat one-sided. All this about it being distracting: it’s not distracting! It is part of a holy trinity born of consumption, eventually relegating people themselves to the gluttony. Although this is of central importance to the film, it does have one wondering if one’s time could not have been better spent. A life spent grazing only between the course selections of sex, drugs and rock and roll will not only give one a cold and a fever, but it will leave one unsatisfied amid the chemical ellipses. The Wolf of Wall Street was designed to show how such ambitions, in their pure form, do not render any sense of lasting fulfillment or pleasure.Goodfellas was sensational at the time of its release for its spray of expletives and its thuggish violence. Movie makers have since looked to new ways of shocking and satisfying an audience in its semi-conscious demand for vulgarity. Newer films like, Spring Breakers(2013) and the Wolf of Wall Street, just as with the prototype originals, serve to disturb the viewer into ultimately investigating why he enjoys observing the unremitting roguery, why he likes the idea of it for himself and, finally, whether or not the Stratton Oakmont-paradise is any kind of paradise at all.