I first watched The Wolf of Wall Street in theaters as a 15 year-old 10th grader with my mom and 13 year-old 8th grade sister. Needless to say none of us moved an inch until the credits rolled. The first thing my mom told me was “Ok so don’t tell your father I brought you here”. A couple behind us laughed and we were on our way.
As someone who was just starting to get into movies, not film or cinema, I didn’t know who Mr. Martin Scorsese was. My mother, who also didn’t know anything about Scorsese, was adamant to go to this movie about an era of Wall Street America she remembers as a “history lesson”. That was the most uncomfortable “lesson” I ever watched.
Back then, when I was overwhelmed with a farce “woke” liberal perspective, I loathed this film for being degrading to women and its haloing of corporate greed. It was very excessive, angering and redundant even back in my mid-adolescence. I held on to these emotions for quite sometime. So long and so much that I didn’t revisit the film until I was 21 years-old and on an airplane. Within this time frame I not only was fully immersed into film but the world of (transnational) cinema. I’ve watched much of Scorsese’s filmography times over and grew incredibly familiar with his recurring themes and style.
When I revisted the film 6 years later on a poor quality 7 inch screen, what I now saw wasn’t a world of excess and avaricious glorification but one which Scorsese clearly was (attempting) to poke holes at. And I put “attempting” in brackets because it was a wholehearted attempt which, frankly, failed.
With a stronger ability to use and understand cinematic terminology, I now recognize that a strong male gaze, coupled with several degrading male voices, dictates this film. And I do not blame Scorsese for affixing this gaze onto viewers as it was his job to construct the reality, with exaggeration, of this disgusting corporate jungle. But just because it is doing so doesn’t mean it believes in what it is doing. This is a tricky place of film criticism and analysis where a lot of (causal) viewers easily get lost. Images which don’t necessarily align with your world view aren’t immediately qualifiable as “regressive”. One has to understand that the politics of the characters is not necessarily the politics of a film.
What concerns me is not the intentions of Scorsese but how his aspirations were most likely received by passive audiences. Despite showing the lustful rise and familial destroying collapse of a Wall Street mogul, Scorsese indisputably situates our gaze with the much more enticing climb to the top than the frightening descent to the bottom no one wants to envision themselves enduring. Frankly, a lot of people may, and I do know have, walked away from The Wolf of Wall Street actually infatuated with the voluptuous living, sex life and wealth of these characters – possibly (most likely) desiring these things for themselves. Who is really at fault with that? Even though the filmmakers surely (I hope) don’t agree with how these men degrade and talk about women, most of the women in this film are seemingly positioned and framed for the male imagination. Is the viewer at fault for constructing this fantasy, which largely features Margot Robbie in all the broscussions and chat rooms, or was the imagining planted there by the film?
These are the dangerous waters of criticism and glorification The Wolf of Wall Street unconsciously and carelessly walks across. It’s quite hard to fully position the festival, which it is, into a concrete category. Even though we watch Belford’s comical arrest, we can’t undo the two and half hours that he was presented to us as a hero.
While presenting itself, more implicitly, as a critique it’s more outwardly an excessive feast for the desiring eye. And while it’s brilliantly made, I can’t help but feel that it’s more culturally damaging than anything else.