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‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ Is a Film About Selling, and Most Salesmen Are Liars

A few years ago, during my ill-fated stint as a corporate litigator, I found myself in a conference room waiting for a meeting with some bankers to start. It was all men but me, a not-uncommon occurrence in those days. And one started joking to another about some people they knew in common. They’d been out to a basketball game for some client event and one guy, these men gossiped to each other, had brought a sex worker along. Mind you, they didn’t call her a “sex worker” per se. Instead, giggling like schoolchildren, they referred to her as a “lady of the evening.” Listening, I had my face set in an expression I developed for situations like that one, meaning situations in which businessmen were showing off for each other and I was meant to tolerate it without comment. I would just let my mouth set into a natural frown, and appear very interested in my notepad. I once came back from some such meeting and found I’d written “oh christ oh christ oh christ” perhaps a hundred times over.

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That feeling came back to me while watching The Wolf of Wall Street last Thursday. People are arguing about whether or not the film endorses the behavior it depicts. For me, it did not. David Edelstein at Vulture, leading the charge on the “yes” side, complained that the film was another iteration of Scorsese’s “worship of masculine energy,” and thus just “three hours of horrible people doing horrible things and admitting to being horrible.” Okay, sure. But he then goes on to contend, rather less convincingly (not that he started from a good place), that, “you’re supposed to envy them anyway, because the alternative is working at McDonald’s and riding the subway alongside wage slaves.” Well, I’m not sure that the movie frames it that way. From where I was sitting, Kyle Chandler’s FBI character looks pretty damn noble going home on the subway, wage slave or not.

I wouldn’t rule out that some people — pretty much all of them straight men, I’m comfortable saying — envy some of the behavior they’re seeing. Projecting that on the entire audience, though, is unwarranted.

For those doomed by personality, gender, etc. to observe, as opposed to participate, in the Bacchanalia of quick wealth, The Wolf of Wall Street suffers from a more complicated and more interesting flaw: its inability to definitively puncture Jordan Belfort’s self-mythology. I don’t just mean, as David Denby said in his column, prompted by the critic Farran Smith Nehme, that Belfort was no big deal as far as Wall Street was concerned. It’s certainly true that Belfort’s crime was small in the amount. And there is a real lie there in the way this movie’s getting marketed and talked about, in the way we’re expected to believe this movie is about “what’s wrong with Wall Street.” In fact the kind of simple securities fraud Belfort committed isn’t really the canker in the rose, these days. The evil’s of a more banal kind now, involving structured financials so devoid of any reality that it’s hard to even say who or what they’re trading. I could explain but it would be super-nerdy and well, movies are not economic history classes.

But that sort of factual elision points to the larger flaw. In my experience, people on Wall Street have a habit of believing that what they do is Important, though they can’t ever tell you how or why. They are lying to themselves as a first principle. And every other statement they make needs to be evaluated in that context.

Yes, the orgiastic heights to which Belfort says his five-to-ten-years on top went are perhaps true in their particulars. He apparently did once crash a helicopter and sink a yacht. I also don’t doubt he snorted a significant percentage of the cocaine available in New York and employed a great many escort services. But there is a key element of braggadocio in that that goes largely uninterrogated in the Wolf of Wall Street. Whenever people were literally carrying naked hookers around the office or blowing coke into bums in this film, I could feel that old corporate conference-room feeling coming over me. “Bullshit,” I thought, and I wish I could say I saw that the film was thinking that, too. But I think all we are meant to do is condemn the excess. Not to see that to some degree the excess is performative, and that it’s the performance that’s the addiction, not the drugs or the money itself.

Not everyone’s on the same page about how the movie feels about Belfort’s self-aggrandizement, for the record. Glenn Kenny and Richard Brody both point out that the absurdities of excess are explicitly highlighted in the film. There, is, for example, a scene where a woman shaves her head for the money for a boob job that, to steal Kenny’s observation, could have been lifted from Ionesco. There is also an extended sequence in which Belfort drives his Ferrari high, and thinks he’s done it without a scratch when in fact he’s come close to totalling his beloved car. There are the swift deaths — Brody calls them counterfactuals and I think that’s pushing it, but I’ll acknowledge the point — of Belfort’s associates. My disagreement with Kenny and Brody is only one of degrees. I can see that these little hints were meant as levers, but they weren’t enough, for me, to bring the whole façade down on Belfort’s head. They only signalled that Belfort was making lies of omission, not that the entire architecture of his story was something of a sales job itself. All the critics saying they see something enviable in Belfort — see Matt Zoller Seitz (“It is honest”) or A.O. Scott (“it makes a fetish of his selfish bad-boy lifestyle”) — suggest I’m right. They just don’t quite burst the bubble.

See, the thing I take away from those long-ago conference room mornings is not some kind of matronly horror that men might do something so debauched as employ a sex worker. The thing I took away from it was how important it seemed to be for businessmen to self-puff in this way. As I said, I learned, too, that my role was to ignore it, to let it go. Puffery, you learn in your contracts class, is just what some people call salesmanship, and selling’s not illegal. But I’m not in a conference room, now, and well… oh christ.

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