‘Amoral’ financier film sparks controversy

Show me the money: ‘a thought-provoking portrait of decadence run amok’?

The Wolf of Wall Street, a new film about a swindling financier, has caused uproar over its alleged glorification of greed and theft. But is it Hollywood’s job to show bad behaviour punished?

Released this weekend, the new film from celebrated American director Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street, has provoked outrage from audiences and critics alike.

Based on a true story, the movie is set in New York in the 1990s. Corrupt stockbroker Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, runs a money-laundering scam encouraging bad investments. After profiting from the proceeds of the scam, he is eventually caught by the authorities. But Belfort only serves a short prison sentence, having betrayed his colleagues to the police. And on the way, he seems to be really, really enjoying himself.

The three-hour movie, for which DiCaprio won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor, has also been nominated for several Oscars. But it has come under fire for its portrayal of Belfort and his cronies. Critics have decried what they see as the film’s celebration of greed. After the financial crisis led millions around the world to suffer the after-effects of a banking industry that over-reached itself, how, they ask, could the director not have shown the effect Belfort’s frauds had on his victims?

Others think the filmmakers are far too indulgent of bad behaviour. The characters’ misogyny, drug-taking and constant profanity have received particular attention. Censors in the Gulf cut so much out of the film that audiences complained and walked out, confused by the remaining storyline.

DiCaprio himself rejects the criticisms, insisting that he and Scorsese constantly paused to consider whether all the hedonism was going too far: ‘We’re trying to give an authentic portrayal of who these people were. This is a cautionary tale. The best thing a film can do is immerse an audience completely in someone else’s mindset. These people weren’t thinking about their victims; they were a ship moving forward that didn’t think about the wake of their destruction. They cared only about themselves.’

Sheep in wolf’s clothing?

Some critics have dismissed the film as irresponsible. For them it fails to show the effects of the debauchery which took place in the financial sector and instead glorifies the lead character’s careless attitude towards his victims. A film that purports to tell the truth, they say, has an obligation to distinguish between right and wrong, and not to celebrate greed, sexism, and theft.

But no art form should be a pulpit from which to deliver sermons on righteousness, respond others. And a film based on a true story should not rewrite history by inventing punishments where none were administered. The Wolf of Wall Street does not condone the illegality and immorality of Belfort and his accomplices, they argue, even if it fails explicitly to condemn them. In fact, it would patronise viewers to put the stockbrokers in the stocks.

You Decide

  1. ‘Uncritical portrayals of corruption make bad behaviour seem normal and acceptable.’ Do you agree?
  2. What are the characteristics of a ‘cautionary tale’, and is DiCaprio right to use this description?


  1. Watch the clip in Become an Expert of Leonardo DiCaprio condemning the character he plays: discuss your reactions.
  2. Find examples in film, novels or any other medium, of a morality tale. Write an analysis of how it administers its message.

Some People Say...

“Filmmakers are not priests. It’s not their role to act as moral guides.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What does it matter about right and wrong if the film is good?
Well, you could say that, and some people argue that morality is for parents and teachers to communicate to children and not the job of actors and directors. But some think that movies and other forms of entertainment should set an example, whether by showing the effects of greed or by refusing, for example, to ‘glamourise’ the mistreatment of women.
So how is some criminal behaviour from 20 years ago still relevant now?
Six years on from the start of another financial crisis, many people are still feeling the effects of failures in the banking industry and believe that history has repeated itself. They are still angry with the greed and recklessness of banks and argue that rather than showing that there are lessons to be learned, The Wolf of Wall Street treats this bad behaviour as an amusing escapade.

Word Watch

Someone who buys and sells stocks and shares for her or his clients.
Schemes where money gained through criminal means is made to look as though it came from a legitimate source; often the work of criminal gangs.
Golden Globe
The Golden Globes are the secondary American annual awards for film and television drama. The ceremony is relatively light-hearted and is treated as a run-up to Hollywood’s most prestigious awards, the Oscars, which will be presented in early March.
Animal rights campaigners are also angry about the film because DiCaprio acts alongside a trained chimpanzee, and those representing people with disabilities object to what they consider to be ‘mocking’ portrayals.
Mistreatment of women (literally the hatred of women). Many argue that women continue to suffer from discrimination in the financial sector as well as many other walks of life, but it is the uncritical portrayal of prostitution in this film which has added to the controversy.
excessive greed and partying, often involving alcohol or drugs.


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