Georgios Patsiaouras, Lecturer in Marketing and Consumption at the School, draws sobering lessons from the popularity of the recent Hollywood Blockbuster, The Wolf of Wall Street.
Martin Scorsese’s latest film is an adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same name. Critics have lamented the film’s unachieved goal of thematically and stylistically suffusing the fast cutting direction of his pioneering Goodfellas with Wall Street’s perverse hedonism. For me, even if The Wolf of Wall Street fails to live up to the aesthetic goals envisaged by the director it nevertheless succeeds in providing a disturbing glimpse onto the disease addled undercarriage of hedonistic consumerism. We in the audience consume this spectacle not from the safe place of the voyeur but from the uncomfortable position of the native. This is because the film doesn’t simply display aberrant forms of consumption: it proposes the aberrancy of all consumerism, the consumption of films (about consumption) not least of all.
Over the course of the film’s three hours, we consume the meteoric rise and fall of a stockbroker who embarked on an existential marathon of overspending, drug consumption and sexual pleasure, funded by millions of swindled dollars. The film narrows in on the ethical and psychological decadence – as well as the subsequent redemption – of the (anti-)hero. After rehab, arrest, jail and divorce, Jordan Belfort ultimately adopts a stance of moral repentance against his formerly illicit ways. Then comes the closing twist on an otherwise entirely familiar story-arc. Our seemingly reformed protagonist is seen on stage, challenging his under-confident audience to sell him a pen. The film’s audience is included within this gesture. So we recall an earlier scene where Belfort’s early mentor – a man who quite literally engages in the act of chest thumping while guzzling down his liquid lunch – explains that his job consists in taking money from the pockets of his clients and putting it into his own. This wise counsel was offered in 1987, a few short months before the Wall Street Crash. As the credits roll we are invited to wonder whether the swindling apprentice turned charismatic pen salesman has in fact reformed that much, if at all.
The release of Scorsese’s black comedy and Belfort’s autobiography are far from untimely. While the film is set in New York during the late 80s and early to mid-90s, the viewer cannot help but think of the Global Financial Crisis of the late 2000s. Despite the persistently annoying presence of megalomaniac tendencies throughout his autobiography, Belfort has the good grace to admit that his company – Stratton Oakmont – was nothing more than a fairly small pump-and-dump scheme. For allegorists this raises an obvious question of scale since, according to one film critic, the economic crimes of Stratton Oakmont are amateurish illegalities which pale in comparison to the gigantically unpunished schemes perpetrated by reputable financial groups. Belfort’s story tells us a little about the real world of finance and a lot about that of sales.
“Stratton Oakmont is America”, Belfort tells his boisterous sales team just before beginning his four year prison sentence, a period during which he spent a fair amount of time preparing the confessional memoirs which have now been published in over 30 countries and translated into 18 languages. His ongoing repentance regularly finds its way onto the virtual altars provided by the CNN, CNBC and the BBC while a seat at his “Straight Line Sales Psychology” seminar will cost you about $30,000 per hour. Old wine in next bottles then! Belfort originally made his fortune as a confidence trickster, pushing penny stocks to the naïve and aspirational at an astronomical rate of commission. He and his colleagues ‘sold’ a transubstantiated version of the American dream to countless buyers: the promise of getting rich very quickly without any great effort. They did so successfully for almost a decade. Both then and now we bear witness to a character who knows how to spin a good story, for money. Both then and now we are in the grips of a talented salesman: stocks, pens, sales techniques, stories, dreams: whatever!
“If you want to be rich, never give up, failure is your friend”: spiritual advice from a man who, without irony, now decrees his axioms in lists of ten. It was a vision of life which a less infamous yet more tragic salesman, Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, earlier took to its logical conclusion. Miller’s Loman was a man who had failed in both the public and private worlds, ultimately sacrificing himself, martyr-like, to the ideal of success. For Miller, this made Loman both a true fanatic of the American Dream and a character-study in its untold dangers. In the figure of Jordan Belfort this Dream remains alive and well, despite Miller’s warning. Belfort’s commandments render success and the transgression of legality and morality fundamentally inseparable and we, his audience, are only too happy to pay to look and see.
Martin Scorsese’s greatest commercial hit has brought Belfort’s interpretation of the American Dream into so many more lives than it might have otherwise entered. It enacts a 21st century showroom for a tragicomic sales career through a parade of coke dealers, call girls, European bankers, relatives and FBI agents. Along the way, it pays perverse homage to the foundational marketing principle: the customer is king. Jordan Belfort still owes more than 100 million dollars to his customers. Paying to consume the story about how your life-savings were converted into another’s debauchery is a particularly debased form of sovereignty. But that’s what we’re paying for. Our unwholesome appetite for the high life is presented to us within The Wolf of Wall Street, for our own narcissistic enjoyment.