Martin Scorsese's latest film, though based on the eponymous memoir of stock market fraudster Jordan Belfort, is not about the financial crisis. Belfort had been indicted a full decade before that. But it's like watching 'M*A*S*H' without thinking of the Vietnam war. We cannot help but see it through that prism.
As such, inevitably, many have tried to read a political commentary into it. Given Scorsese's history in gangster flicks, some have suggested we're being invited to compare Belfort and his huckster cohorts to those criminals of yore. Peter Bradshaw's Guardian review starts “imagine the honey-gravel of Ray Liotta's voice in 'Goodfellas' saying: ‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a stockbroker’.” The film is mostly played as a black comedy. Perhaps it could be seen as a modern version of Hogarth's 'Rake's Progress', a salutary tale of the road to ruin.
Yet others have seen in it a celebration of the Wall Street 'greed is good' ethos - a hagiography, a bigging up of those big characters, a revelling in excess. After all, the film is bookended by a corporate video for Belfort's company and one of his motivational sessions, as if the whole thing is one big PR statement. Producers Riza Aziz and Joey McFarlane were themselves former investment bankers. Who had to win a bidding war to get the rights to his memoirs. (While, needless to say, he has only repaid a fraction of the money he stole, when compelled by court orders.)
And it's a perfect fit, isn't it? One big business which trades in glamour and appearance sidling up to another. As if to complete the circle, Belfort himself has said he was 'inspired' by Gordon Gekko from the 1987 film 'Wall Street'. (Who of course coined that “greed is good” quote.) Seen that way the film indulges Belfort's claims for his company Stratton Oakmont - “this right here is the land of opportunity. This is America.”
Yet when asked these questions, Margot Robbie (who plays Naomi, the main female lead) replied:
“Gosh, I don't know. People keep asking that. I'm still obliged to think I hope they see a greedy lifestyle and in the end living in excess won't make you happy. But I don't think we made this movie to tell a moral story about what's right and wrong.”
And she's right. The point about the question is that it's the wrong one. It's like someone who only knows of religious art suddenly coming across a collection of porn prints, and trying to fit the new wine inside the old bottles. You can of course criticise the film for having no political agenda or moral standpoint. But there's no point in pretending it has one. Not even the wrong one.
Based on Belfort's memoir, it makes no pretence to objectivity. Almost the first shot is his sports car changing colour as he shifts the narrative. It's a distorting mirror. To be precise it's a convex one, exploding his salesman's grin over the screen. To quote Peter Bradshaw again: “his character gets to the end of this long movie having learned nothing, conceded nothing and even physically changed in no obvious way.”
And apart from him and his cohorts, who gets their face in edgeways? The schmucks they hoodwink go unseen, out of sight and mind, just the occasional duped voice over the phone. The FBI, while the antagonists, are essentially mirror images of the crooked traders. They're equally swaggering and macho, telling Belfort he's their “Greneda”. One side has their targets set in sales, the other in prosecutions – same deal.
The nearest to a moral voice is Belfort's first wife, Teresa, who innocently asks why he can't defraud rich investors who can stand to lose the money. And she's soon swapped for a trophy wife. (Robbie's Naomi, as mentioned earlier.) In fact it's hard to talk about the role of women in the film without sounding like some sort of tub thumper. It's like they took the most virulent feminist critique they could find and used it as a shooting script. It's like an MTV video with an R rating and a three hour duration.
Naomi must be the female character with the longest screen time, but she never builds into any kind of character. As with everything else, she's only seen through Belfort's eyes – a hot babe when she's giving sex, an uptight bitch when she's withholding it. She's not really any different from the general parade of strippers and hookers that line up through the film.
Needless to say, these are as much accoutrements as the sports cars and designer watches, flesh and blood versions of pointy signs which say 'RICH' and 'FLASH'. In a crass plot to smuggle out money, they absurdly tape cumbersome wads of notes all over a stripper. That image feels pretty much like a microcosm.
But there's more than that. Not only is there no disguising they're getting the girls purely through money, this is even flagged up. The cash (dubbed “fun coupons”) is as foregrounded as the girl flesh. The cash and the girl become equivalent, both seen as emblems of a winning personality. Notably, the desired location to screw a hooker is in the office. Very often at your work-desk, in front of your cheering co-workers. They're part of the same loop as closing the sale and hitting the targets, public demonstrations of virulence. Ultimately, sexual desire isn't really the thing. Even when they're interested in the girls, they're only really interested in themselves.
The film becomes a classic example of the sink hole of apoliticism. The genuine belief that you're not out to make any kind of political point, that's what makes its politics so virulent. There's no space for anything else here, beyond these get-rich scams, because what else is there? But that just raises the question – what kind of political point ends up being made? Despite all appearances, 'greed is good' doesn't really cover it.
Watching the film I was reminded of two quotes I'd read. Pete Townsend often commented all that interested most people about The Who was Keith Moon's antics. The band, the recording and the touring, just existed as a mechanism to keep him in crashable cars and tabloid headlines. And NME journalist Charles Shaar Murray once said that in the late eighties he went on a night out with city traders, and was amazed how their excess and debauchery dwarfed anything in the music world.
Now put those two things together...
Reviewing the Facebook-startup film 'The Social Network' (2010) I commented “this film’s tagline should really be 'dotcom startups are the new rock’n’roll.'” I was pleased with that at the time. As it turns out, I was wrong. Dotcom startups are like bluegrass or skiffle. They were just preparatory. Financial investments, they’re the real rock‘n’roll.
Notably, Scorsese has never made a rock biopic. (Perhaps just as well, most of them are terrible.) But he’s quite definitely a rock’n’ roll film-maker, in the way Altman is a jazz film-maker. Not just in the way music is so central to them. His films are kinetic, a seeming tautology transformed into a style. They leap and bound, rush from one grand set-piece to another. They act brash, they're big, broad statements. Even when you're not always sure what that statement is.
(I'm half-wondering if that's the reason why there's such an uncharacteristic shortage of rock music on the soundtrack here, because it would become a kind of double-booking. Mostly there's blues. Which works quite well. Despite the stereotypes many white folks like to stick on blues, it's not all etherial 'spiritual' stuff akin to gospel. There's a swagger to blues, which gets put to serious use here.)
Because, seriously, when was the last time rock star antics hit the headlines? And the very few that remain, can you see them mythologised by movies in the same way Jim Morrison or Sid Vicious were? People queuing round the block for 'Pete Docherty The Movie'? Rich lists have replaced chart placements in our mind maps of influence.
Of course, it may be I’m betraying my age with the rock stars comparison. Rock stars have not so much become a spent cultural currency as collapsed into that bigger, more insidious category of ‘celebrity’. (Take Ozzy. Who exactly could define what makes Ozzy famous nowadays?) And the film works as an exploded version of the ‘kiss and tell’ features celebrities are always selling to the tabloids. But either way, we're in the same sphere.
The film follows almost the same trajectory (you can’t really call it plot development) of a rock biopic, just updated and transferred. First the band get together, play some small gigs, start hitting the big time (defined as girls, drugs and money) ...then their camaraderie ruptures as everything crashes and burns. There's the same conflation of livelihood and lifestyle, as if what we have here is a lifestyle that pays. Hence the notion that drugs aren’t just a reward for hard work or something supplemental to what you do, but an essential component to it. It’s just that instead of taking acid in the desert and recording an album, you snort coke then seal a deal.
And just like rock biopics are interested in every aspect of a band's career apart from their actual music, so these sexy-new-world-of-business films shy away from the nitty-gritty of trading. As I said of 'Social Network', “the algorithm that underpins Facebook… can be paraded precisely because we don’t get it, it’s importance rising in proportion to its incomprehensibility.”
All of which is made explicit here. There's several scenes where Belfort starts to explain market workings to us, then cuts off as if able to see our uncomprehending faces. Don’t worry, folks out there, we know that stuff isn’t for you. More strippers soon, promise. In fact, things are even taken up a notch. We’re told definitively, and very near the start of the film, that no-one understands the markets. It’s like establishing a basic premise. You'd call it a game-rule, except it’s there to tell us this game has no rules.
Money used to be simple. You learnt the basic maths of it at school, and moved on. Now money has become a form of magic, like the shift in science from solid Newtonian particles to shifty quantum mechanics. Labour and materials don't make money any more, now money itself makes more money. Corporations can make it disappear from one jurisdiction and make it reappear in another. In fact, so magic has it become that even money-men don't understand money any more. They get where they are not by know-how but by strength of personality, by being able to ride it's chaos better than the rest of us. (Here the point of comparison would be Cronenberg's flawed-but-interesting'Cosmopolis', (2012) with it's portrayal of money as fascinating and inscrutable as religion, analysts studying currencies like ancient texts.)
And if this theory is correct, it could explain something which might otherwise seem beyond explanation. When Lord Jones complains of a culture of kicking "wealth creators", when Barclays CEO Bob Diamond insists the time of remorse for bankers should now be over (before most of us were even aware it had begun), when venture capitalist Tom Perkins compares criticism of the profligate rich to (yes really) Nazi persecution of the Jews, what is actually happening? Given that the world as we know it was almost brought to ruin by their reckless stupidity, given that the rest of us are now paying through the nose for mistakes not of our making…. seriously, what ‘kicking’ has there been?
As much as any criticism has occurred, it’s been kept out of mainstream political discourse. What may initially seem merely an absurd over-reaction, a crass case of chutzpah, is more accurately described as literally hysterical. We are only getting the reaction. What’s being criticised is the idea that finance capital can be criticised. It’s like Lord Jones and Tom Perkins have become the Royalty of the modern world. Even when they get it all wrong you’re not supposed to say so, in case that upsets the natural order.
Perhaps what this 'apolitical' film really does is explain this lack of ‘banker bashing’. Back when we had rock stars, what did we need them for? To quote the old Flux Of Pink Indians song, “vicarious living, ritual boredom”. Mostly, we use our cars to drive to work. The idea that someone else, in another reality, crashes his into a swimming pool – that titivates our lives of plodding mediocrity. But those same images give us a good reason to stay sitting in our crash-free cars. They live that way so we don't have to. They get the highs and lows so we can stay with the evens.
And just as rock stars are supposed to crash their cars, so must the stock of stockbrokers plummet. When Belfort's yacht gets scuppered, its neither moral lesson nor cheap figleaf. It’s as much a part of his role as when he was partying on its deck. The job of bankers and brokers is no longer to soberly invest our money, reassuringly dull-suited. Their job is now to drink, snort and screw it. They’re there so we can live our lives vicariously through them. Someone should make a movie about them.
Oh hang on, wait...