Taking Pope Francis to the Movies: “The Wolf of Wall Street” (Film Review)

Wolf of Wall Street

A friend of mine says that if a picture is worth a thousand words, a good documentary film is worth a million. I agree, and would add that a great Hollywood drama directed by someone like Martin Scorsese and starring headliners like Leonardo DiCaprio might be worth two million or more.

Consider “The Wolf of Wall Street” as a case in point. It’s worth a library of dissertations on the dead-end and destructive nature of consumerism so recently criticized by Pope Francis in his Papal Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium – the document intended to keynote his still-emerging reign as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

The pontiff’s publication distanced the pope and his church from the destructive emptiness of lives depicted in Scorsese’s “Wolf.” Pope Francis criticized consumerism based on the obscene accumulation of wealth without concern for the poor or the common good. He condemned “structures” that encourage such behavior. He turned a disapproving eye on education intended to domesticate rather than liberate the poor.

Such features of unfettered markets find lurid depiction in Scorsese’s film. There the over-the-top excesses of the Stratton-Oakmont investment firm amount to a send-up of the American Way of Life in general. At one point the film’s main protagonist, Jordan Belfort (played brilliantly by Leonardo DiCaprio) correctly makes Scorsese’s point, “Stratton-Oakmont is America” he proclaims. By this Belfort means his firm represents a vehicle of salvation for the poor. The film’s narrative suggests contrary conclusions.

“Wolf’s” story is simple. Ne’er-do-wells and petty crooks (DiCaprio and his friends) quickly make millions in the Penny Stock Market. They then use their money to fund frenzied lives of meaningless “work” and ultimately of crime and absolute debauchery with prostitutes, drugs and liquor.

The firm’s “work” consists in selling worthless paper products – stocks (of whose content they are often totally ignorant) – to gullible clients anxious to make a quick buck.

The firm’s crimes include “pump and dump” schemes which have them artificially inflating stock prices and then selling them quickly while leaving their bilked customers holding bags-full of depreciated investments. These quick profits are then laundered and deposited in the Swiss bank accounts that Wall Street wolves have long provided themselves to escape any social obligation or criminal charges for their irresponsible depredations.

All of this eventually leads to arrests. However, as a white collar criminal, DiCaprio’s character gets treated with kid gloves. He serves a three year sentence in a minimum security “country club” prison playing tennis and getting lots of r ‘n r.

On his release, recidivist Belfort doesn’t miss a beat. He simply resumes the very career he was hawking in an infomercial the day he was arrested – as a teacher of yet more get-rich-quick aspirants. Presumably they too seek millions by mirroring Belfort’s life of parasitism, debauchery and crime. The life is attractive because of its huge short-term payoffs. And Belfort’s example shows such felonies involve little risk to their perpetrators and absolutely no responsibility to others.

Through it all DiCaprio’s gang ridicule law, ethics, the poor, and those not devious enough to take advantage of economic, political and legal structures that facilitate plunder. In fact, the poor are virtually absent from Scorsese’s three-hour long parody.

The one person who perhaps falls into that category is celebrated at one of Belfort’s lewd and rowdy “staff meetings.” She’s singled out because she was smart enough to enrich herself by joining the Stratton-Oakmont project of fraud and deceit. In so doing she landed herself on what her mentor sees as his re-creation of Ellis Island – a zone of hope and liberation for the poor. Tearfully grateful, she too now has her limousine, yacht, and vacations in the Bahamas. What more could anyone ask?

Pope Francis answers that question. So do the divorces, addictions, insecurities and instances of child abuse in Scorsese’s film. Along with Pope Francis, they show that life and happiness are not about such self-seeking. But the pope goes further than Scorsese, boldly insisting that human life is about the common good and service of the poor. To facilitate such service, he asks for (no: he demands) fundamental change in the world that makes possible the get-rich-quick schemes like those characteristic of Wall Street and embodied in Stratford-Oakmont. More specifically Pope Francis calls for:

• Rejection of the free market model of development for combating poverty. Contrary to Jordan Belfort’s vision of a new Ellis Island, Stratton-Oakmont is not the solution to world poverty, inequality or violence. Rather, according to the pope such firms with their “trickle-down” ideologies represent the root of the problems in question.

• Centralization of ethics in the business world. Though not enumerated by Francis, the principles here are simple: Don’t lie; don’t steal, don’t engage in sexual conduct harmful to others; treat others as you would like to be treated; recognize that one reaps what he or she sows. These mandates recognized in all great religious traditions are not only routinely violated by the Belfort gang; they are ridiculed and their abuses flaunted. This, according to Pope Francis is the way of the world dominated as it is by consumerism and loosely regulated markets.

• Incorporation of the viewpoints of the poor in policy discussions – instead of treating the “little people” as freaks, instruments, nobodies and fools as in the Stratton-Oakmont boardroom discussion about using “midgets” for staff entertainment.

• Recognition of “education” like that offered by Jordan Belfort for what it is – a means of tranquilizing and domesticating the marginalized and otherwise excluded.

• Reformation of legal structures that facilitate the quick capital accumulation responsible for huge gaps between the rich and the poor. Reformations suggested both by Scorsese and Pope Francis include not only tighter regulation of stock exchanges and financial markets, but elimination of instruments such as Swiss bank accounts, and laws that coddle white collar mega-criminals while placing victimless petty “criminals” of color (such as those caught possessing crack cocaine) in maximum security facilities.

These are just a few of the directions Francis calls the world to follow.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” supports his call by illustrating its need in a picture worth much more than a million words.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

2 thoughts on “Taking Pope Francis to the Movies: “The Wolf of Wall Street” (Film Review)”

  1. This is terrific, Mike. I didn’t intend to see the film but now I will — armed with your appropriate critique. I have much hope for the tenure of Pope Francis. I pray that he will be given the time to produce the changes that are sorely needed in our RC Church and, by extension, in our badly fractured, immoral society.

    Thank you,
    Alice

    Like

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