Fiction and Fact: The Culture of the Con

Fiction and Fact: The Culture of the Con


Howard Adelman

Foster, Peter (2014) “Goodbrokers: Wolf of Wall Street an inferior Scorcese remake,” National Post, 8 January, FP11.

Fulford, Robert (2014) “The American Scheme: How the con man managed to turn himself into a folk hero,” National Post, 7 January, B1.

Rakoff, Jed S. (2014) “”The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?” NYRB, LXI:1, 9 January.

Surowiecki, James (2014) “Do the Hustle,” The New Yorker, 13 January, 21.

Following my reviews of the two films, The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle, I will be using the above four essays or articles as well as the widespread very recent reports on the huge fines levelled against JP Morgan Chase Bank. This comment was instigated by a response to my blog with an attachment, an “Open Letter to the Makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf Himself” by Christina McDowell ( Christina is the daughter of Tom Prousalis, a partner of Jordan Belfort whom Leonardo DiCaprio played in the film. Belfort pleaded guilty to money laundering and securities fraud and was a prosecution witness against his former colleague, Tom Prousalis.

Christina wrote that the testimony was blocked lest it reveal a spate of other corrupt stock offerings: “that would have been a disaster. It would have just been too many liars, and too many schemes for the jurors, attorneys or the judge to follow.” Further, Christina wrote that Belfort and her father conspired together not just in one scheme, as the film portrayed, but in a series of fraudulent stock offerings such as MVSI Inc. of Vienna, e-Net Inc. of Germantown, Md., Octagon Corp. of Arlington, Va., and Czech Industries Inc. of Washington, D.C., and so on. Christina confronted the makers of the film for glorifying Belfort and receiving kudos and awards while both the victims of these fraudsters suffered enormously. Her mother, her two sisters and she herself also suffered and continue to suffer. The suffering began immediately after the fact by learning that they themselves were burdened with enormous credit card and other debts rooted in identity theft. Prousalis’ wife and his three daughters’ lives were just wrecked. Remember how Bernie Madoff’s son committed suicide!

Why? Because these con artists trick the members of their own families. But in the films they are turned into folk heroes. Christina wrote: “You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.” At the end of the film, the story suggests that Jordan Belfort went along to a second career as a motivational speaker to become once again wealthy while many of his victims largely remain destitute and received little if any restitution.

Christina concludes that after she was sucked into the con, and the drug behaviour and pleasure seeking that went along with it, “then I unravelled the truth. The truth about my father and his behavior: that behind all of it was really just insidious soul-sucking shame masked by addiction, which we love to call ambition, which is really just greed. Greed and the desire for fame (exactly what you’ve successfully given self-appointed motivational speaker/financial guru Jordan Belfort, whose business opportunities will surely multiply thanks to this film).”

Peter Foster complemented that criticism by claiming the film exploited the same values as the con artist – lies and exaggerated behaviour. As Foster wrote, Belfort graduated from a meat salesman to a stock salesman and was named by himself as the Wolf, not by Forbes Magazine. Further, the critics are complicit in cheering the film claiming it was as good or even superior to Goodfellas when it is, as both I and Foster claimed, tedious and totally self-indulgent however great the acting and production values. The biggest lie is that the makers and promoters of the film, including Leonardo DiCaprio, call it a cautionary tale, when in artistic intent and consequences, it is precisely the opposite. As my son, Gabriel, who loves the film, says, Scorcese’s great skill is to portray villain’s from a very neutral perspective and not take a stand. Screenwriter Terence Winter claimed the lesson from the film is that, “We don’t learn anything. Nothing changes.” Further, Gabriel himself is anguished between his love for the brilliance in film making and the consequences among young people of his age who take the very opposite message from the film and glory in the excessive wealth and self-indulgence of the crooked stockbrokers.

Robert Fulford, while acknowledging that The Wolf of Wall Street is florid and hysterical and that the acting is sensationally good, claims that the message of the film is not only that, “We don’t learn anything. Nothing changes,” but that eternal recurrence of the con theme is a reverberating theme of American culture. The lesson is not that crooks get it and their lives are ruined, but that they are reborn again in new versions of the same thing as Christina declares about her father. “He recreates himself every time he imagines a new scheme for enriching himself at the hands of the innocent.” George Parker (1870-1930) who sold the Brooklyn Bridge many times over was “an outrageous model for all fictional con men.” Con men tell lies and make claims that are too good to be true.  Fulford opines that, “Characters like him are a gift to storytellers and moviemakers …moral cripples…riding on a smile and a shoeshine.” The best con movie of all time, The Sting, memorializes the type, but in a movie where the marks are the real crooks. The movie works by conning the audience, but traditionally making the con clear by a twist at the ending. The Wolf of Wall Street is a fraud that cons but never owns up to it.

The question arises: why do these con artists get away with it? James Surowiecki asks why Americans have a soft spot for these greedy hucksters who sell dreams that never come true and why do audiences get conned by movies like The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle? Surowiecki’s answer is the same as that of the screenwriter of The Wolf of Wall Street, “It has ever been thus.” As the University of Pennsylvania historian Walter McDougall wrote, “far from despising flimflam artists as parasites or worse, American popular culture habitually celebrates rascals as comedic figures.” Surowiecki continues: “It seems that con artists, for all their vices, represent many of the virtues that Americans aspire to. Con artists are independent and typically self-made…They succeed or fail based on their wits. They exemplify, in short, the complicated nature of American capitalism, which, as McDougall argues, has depended on people being hustlers in both the positive and the negative sense. The American economy wasn’t built just on good ideas and hard work. It was also built on hope and hype.”

As Surowiecki wrote, the line between crooks and businessmen is fuzzy. (As we will see, thus may still be true in the twenty-first century.) In the nineteenth century, Jay Gould who promoted railway stock was one of the biggest con artists the country had ever seen. Wall Street Entrepreneurs and con men have similar skills. “Successful entrepreneurship involves hucksterism, the ability to convince investors and employees that they should risk their money, their time, and their effort on you.” They peddle optimism. The philosophy of the sting is to sell hope. Steve Jobs was the greatest con man, entrepreneur and director of the twenty-first century, scripting and rehearsing his presentations to the greatest detail. He believed that you both had to have but also sell absolute conviction. As Weinberg said, “Before you sell a deal you have to live the deal. You have to believe in it, because, if you don’t believe in it, you can’t sell it.”  The one and only difference between the con artist and the entrepreneur is not the set of qualities, but that the entrepreneur can deliver and make the fantasies come true. Con men cannot.

Jed Rakoff in his article asks why there have been no prosecutions of high level executives from the latest financial scandal of the huge mortgage scams. Everything may not be the same. There were high level prosecutions in the past – Michael Milken in the 1970s junk bond bubble, Charles Keating and others in the 1980s savings-and-loan crisis, Jeffrey Skilling and Bernie Ebbers in the 1990s Enron scam. But there have been no prosecutions of executives from the 2008 sub-prime mortgage collapse. The 2 billion dollar fine of JP Morgan, the biggest US bank with $2.3 trillion in assets and revenues of over a $100 billion, was levied for failing to inform US authorities of the Madoff Ponzi fraud. The announcement was made five years after Madoff was arrested. The bank ignored its own information that Madoff was up to something very questionable. To avoid indictment, the bank had to admit criminal wrongdoings and pay the fine. This recent $2 billion was in addition to a previous series of fines $13 billion, $4.5 billion, $920 million, $470 million, $410 million and an anticipated another $2.3 or so billion more European fines, fines which in total only amounted to 12% of its net income over four years.

Why have the executives not been prosecuted for the collusion of these huge businesses with fraudsters like Madoff or Weinberg or Belfort, for the latter could not succeed in their theft, whether selling worthless stocks in the seventies and eighties or selling toxic mortgage-backed securities in the twenty-first century without the collusion of large banks? There are several possibilities. First, perhaps the banks were themselves conned. But they did not lose money; they made money – huge amounts. Further, the real question is why they shut their eyes to both what they knew and what they did not want to know. But why did SEC not catch on? Why did the rating agencies mislead everyone? There are reasons offered – the difficulty of proving intent, even though intent need not be proven, only wilful blindness, not nearly as difficult to prove. Further, since these firms also participated in the purchase of these weekly-backed mortgage securities and were sophisticated investors, how could they be declared as either victims or as complicit? Given the speed of electronic trading and the reliance on algorithms, how could responsibility ever be traced to individuals?

Another reason is offered. Unlike previous financial crises, in this crisis the whole western economy was at risk. There were more important priorities. Another reason Rakoff offers is the built-in incentives of prosecuting attorneys to make names for themselves, but to do so in a timely fashion as distinct from the large number of years it would take to prosecute banks for complicity. In the films, manic FBI agents take their place because they are mirrors of the con artists in the two films I discussed. Further, Rakoff suggested that the government itself was complicit since it proposed the shotgun marriages of the Bank of America with Merrill Lynch and JP Morgan with Bear Stearns with mistakes made and liabilities unrevealed. Prosecuting attorneys can make a name much easier than prosecuting individual executives by making deferred or non-prosecution agreements as was done with JP Morgan and settle for huge fines. They can then envision themselves as the modern Robin Hoods.

I want to suggest another reason not included in Rakoff’s long list of potential explanations. We have gone from making con artists folk heroes to making them superheroes just when films increasingly portray the dark side of traditional superheroes – Batman, Superman, Spiderman. Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde from the dark side, and Daniel Boone and David Crocket from the light side, Joe Hill and Che Guevera from the left side, and Rob Roy and Joseph Trumeldor from the right side, have all been folk heroes. Canada has its own Two Gun Moshe Cohen. The biography of any one of them will show that they were themselves shape-shifters who helped in the effort to imprint their names, personalities and ostensible deeds into popular memory usually exaggerated to mythic proportions. The folk hero is an individual who performs acts that allows a sympathetic group to project onto them heroic status for that heroic status confers status and position on the group who identifies with the supposed hero. This is true of the Ford Nation in relationship to a serial liar and serial apologist like Rob Ford selling the fraud that he is the taxpayer’s best friend. Typically, trickster heroes in all cultures (Brer Rabbit, the coyote in aboriginal stories) have both good and bad sides, usually breaking taboos but upholding everyman values.

The con men tricksters of The Wolf of Wall Street and of American Hustle are the new contemporary folk heroes being mythologized by Hollywood now as superheroes. Though fictions about con artist folk heroes – whether Huckleberry Finn  or Tom Sawyer – used to serve as a counter-balance to restore social order, in the contemporary mould they are used to uphold the virtues of greed for its own sake. The difference now is that the films through mindblindness, not deliberate intention, but wilful mindblindness nevertheless, serves the same roles as the banks in their complicity with the original crimes in the sub-prime mortgage scandal in raising the status of the crooks in an afterlife of iconic status by developing stories as myths favouring con artists using megalomaniacal hype themselves with no relationship to social needs or social purposes and only incidental relatiobs to the facts. The films are as guilty of promoting vicarious hedonistic thrills as the con artist fraudster entrepreneurs were. The new blended superhero/folk heroes are not Robin Hood figures but icons of the age of greed and the new dreams of hedonistic glory and the pursuit of sensual pleasure in our society. When aesthetics trumps both truth and ethics in the glorification of appetite with the enormous investment that a first class con requires, Hollywood becomes the vehicle for creating the new myths without any fear they will be prosecuted for their “artistic license” as the film-makers both profit from the hype and the dreams they spin and as they propagate new imitators.


The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street


Howard Adelman

SPOILER ALERT: A boring interminable film of excessive self-indulgence that is excellently acted with very high production values and some very entertaining scenes. Since it is bound to be Oscar material, and since most people I know were very entertained by the movie, you may want to see it. If you do, save the review for afterwards.

The Wolf of Wall Street directed by Martin Scorcese plays for almost one hour longer than Wall Street directed by Oliver Stone made over a quarter century earlier. Other than the much greater length of the new film, on the surface the two movies seem to be very similar. In both films, the main characters are crooked stockbrokers based on real life characters. Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street, was based loosely on a dash of Oliver Stone’s own stockbroker father, but mostly Michael Milken, the junk bond king and perhaps some of Ivan Boesky as a condiment to top off the portrait. Both Milken and Boesky were convicted of insider trading, racketeering and fraud and went to jail.

The Wolf is a movie adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s autobiography, another crooked stockbroker from only a few years later. Belfort made his multi-millions by transforming a boiler room operation for touting penny stocks milking ordinary working stiffs into a sophisticated sales operation to loot the pockets of the 1%. The game lasted until his ambition to rise to the higher echelons of stockbrokerages by issuing an Initial Public Offering (IPO) took him into the stratosphere of profits by touting a stock he himself owned through delegates and then selling the stock off when it reached a peak. At the same time, this brought him squarely into the sights of the regulating authorities. His insider trading was more audacious and even more crooked than simply benefitting from inside information. And he added to his security fraud crimes, money laundering and hiding his audacious profits of millions of dollars in overseas Swiss bank accounts.

Michael Douglas who played Gordon Gekko won an Oscar for his audacious performance. Leonardo DiCaprio is certain to be nominated for and may win an Oscar for his energetic, manic portrayal of Jordan Belfort who is not in the business of making cars or clothes, shoes or steel. He is just in the business of making money, and making money does not require any ability to create anything, does not require genesis, but only kinesis, a hyper-charged over-exuberant energy and determination to transfer money from the pockets of his clients into his own.

This is a major difference between the two films. Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas preached, “Greed is good.” Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, taught, “Greed is good for me.” For the latter, there was no transcendental message about the way of the world. In fact, there is a scene in The Wolf in which Belfort attempts to make a generalization about the nature of everyone wanting to make a buck. He is challenged by one of his old street buddies hired when he formed the firm. What about priests? Another example is offered. Belfort backs off to insist that he’s just talking about most guys – firemen and garbagemen, etc. Gordon Gekko’s actual message in Wall Street was: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.” Gekko preached GREED; Belfort simply practiced it.

Gordan Gekko was the messiah and personification of a caricature of capitalism. Jordan Belfort is the reincarnation of Caligula’s extravagance and sexual indulgences and offers no message, even a false one, for salvation and redemption. That is why when one critic viewed The Wolf of Wall Street as merely a more extravagant and audacious movie on the same theme as Wall Street, that critic demonstrated that he did not understand The Wolf on Wall Street. Similarly, when Richard Brody in praising the film in The New Yorker as wild and brilliant wrote that the excessive indulgence of one’s appetites is a “central part of human nature”, he too revealed that he missed a central point of the film. For the film insists that mankind is not uniform. There are wolves and there are sheep. And you can belong to one animal species or another, but there is no characteristic that unites us all – even greed.

Wall Street was a movie in the tradition of Elmer Gantry, the 1960 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel about a charismatic salesman played by Burt Lancaster – that also earned him an Oscar – who finds it even more profitable to save souls more than sell cars. Like Gekko, Gantry sermonized and made extravagant proclamations as he used his enormous physical energy and mastery of the use of a quicksilver tongue to put on “the greatest show” to manipulate the crowd who wanted and needed to believe. Gekko simply substituted surrendering oneself to greed. Belfort, in contrast, simply asks his salesmen to surrender themselves to him and his mantra just as they must ask their clients to surrender themselves to the salesmen. Trust- or faith – the setting aside of all doubts is the name of the game. In Wall Street, the surrender is in the name of a higher power, a general universal abstraction, the economic laws of the market place; in The Wolf of Wall Street, the surrender is to a particular person.

However, if Gekko was deliberate and conniving, calculating and cool. Belfort is hot. He is high on cocaine and quaaludes, moving like a souped-up car on high octane fuel travelling at uncontrollable speeds. He is also present like a god in the film for he is also the all-present, all-knowing narrator of his own life, even addressing the audience in the movie theatre – sometimes even, as Leonardo, stepping out of the action on the screen. Though the camera moves through the army of salesman like God parting the Red Sea  and then plunges deep and soars above in the orgy scenes, the film is clearly not an exercise offering a widely insane message, but an indulgence in fantasies and induced hallucinations. Wall Street may have preached a false morality, but it was a moral vision which was being held up for ridicule. The Wolf on Wall Street has no moral message but is just the exhibition of a handsome, far more charming and much more suave Rob Ford stumbling around on a mixture of alcohol and drugs.  If Gordon Gekko as a prophet was a louse, Belfort is no prophet. He is an uninhibited embarrassment with a fascist God-complex. Martin Scorcese is the ideal director to paint such a portrait and Leonardo DiCaprio performs the part with brilliance.

Wall Street was different in another respect. Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko takes on Charlie Sheen who is desperate to learn at the feet of his mentor. In contrast, though DiCaprio as Belfort has followers, they are his buddies and immediate disciples, foremost among them Donnie Azoff played brilliantly by Jonah Hill. There is no explanation of why Belfort, though wearing a wire in the end under threat from the FBI and the courts, refuses to betray Azoff. Belfort’s note warned Azoff not to say anything incriminating because Belfort is wearing a wire. Does Azoff, as a student of the message os self-interest, betray Belfort by passing Belfort’s note to the FBI? Or does the FBI simply find the note in their raid? We are not told.

The only explanation I could think of for the mystery has nothing to do with the characters of either Azoff or Belfort. Instead,  the whole film is an exercise in mimicry of Christ’s relationship with Judas and his other apostles, but in the name of licentiousness instead of self-sacrifice. The film, which opened on Christmas Day, is simply an inversion of the Christian message as a paean, not to greed as a master idea, but to decadence and a life of purgatory. Otherwise, where, when and why did Belfort develop scruples and refuse to rat out his friends?

Near the beginning of the movie, DiCaprio himself has a John the Baptist to induct him into the ways of the devil. Matthew McConaughey as the top broker, Mark Hanna, of the firm Belfort first joins, takes his naive and innocent student, Belfort, to lunch and in a brilliant cameo appearance teaches him the basic rules of the game. You do not work for your client. You work for yourself. When your client makes money, you make money by not allowing him to cash in his chips by convincing him to reinvest further so that you, his broker, can make more commissions. He puts up the cash; you make the money. His money must work for you; you are not working to make him money. Further, in this hyper-kinetic world of individual acquisitiveness ad infinitum, you cannot survive on one day of rest a week but need to relax a number of times a day. Take cocaine; how else can you otherwise face living such a scummy life. Masturbate at least twice a day.

There is another characteristic of The Wolf on Wall Street that differentiates it from Wall Street.  In the scene at lunch where Belfort is undertaking his induction lessons, Matthew McConaughey beats out a tribal beat on his chest, a tribal beat that will become the mantra of Belfort’s firm when it is established.

Hmm Hmm Hum.

Hmm Hmm Hum

Hum Hum Hum Hmm Hmm Hum

Stocktraders are warriors. They are killers. They belong to a macho tribe of Mafia fighters and they take no prisoners. They are the real badfellas of GoodFellas. At one point in the film, during a lull on the floor of the trading offices as they await a launch of the new IPO, one of the stockbrokers is spotted by Donnie Azoff cleaning his small glass goldfish bowl. Donnie grabs the bowl, empties the water out, takes out the goldfish and swallows it. The ostensible message is not to waste time in private caring tasks when the barbarians are about to go on the warpath. The deeper message is that we are carnivores who eat our enemies. The wayward stockbroker is immediately fired.

Further, these brokers travel in wolf packs and give each other cute nicknames for they remain permanent adolescents. Brian Sacca plays Robbie Feinberg, “Pinhead”. Henry Zebrowski plays Alden Kupferberg, “Sea Otter”. P. J. Byrne plays Nicky Koskoff, the only educated one of the bunch, a lawyer nicknamed “Rugrat” because of his awful toupé. Kenneth Choi plays Chester Ming, “the Depraved Chinaman.” The hypocrastic use of names to convey affection and bonding by using a diminutive conveys smallness as well. It is a way of gently dissing another and diminishing that other, a friendly form of bullying when the attitude to everyone else outside the group is unfriendly bullying. Thus, when DiCaprio is on the phone taking in another mark, his gestures to his fellow guffawing cohort conveys condescension and his general contempt for his clients while talking in a tone of hypocritical respect.

The world does not consist of a universe of humanity all sharing a common creed of greed. Instead, it is a Manichean world made up of marks and those who pick the pockets of the marks. The marks lack the right combination of drive and ruthlessness, powerful appetite and disciplined will so they are relegated to narrow and boring lives. The enemies are not other warrior tribes, but the majority of humans relegated to an Other and only worthy of serving as prey until they are destroyed, sacrificed on the altars of those who have the drive and the unquenchable thirst and appetite to eat the livers of others.

The only problem is that the FBI agents are viewed as marks by the Belforts of this world, but Belfort is unable to seduce them into taking his money let alone parting with their own. F.B.I. agent, Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) demonstrates as much guile and determination as Belfort but with infinitely more patience. When Denham is on Belfort’s 170 ft. yacht and they engage in a cat-and-mouse game, DiCaprio may not be stupid enough for the moment to become Chandler’s mouse, but Chandler also refuses to become marked by DiCaprio’s money. And DiCaprio made the mistake of not listening to his lawyer; against his lawyer’s advice, he tries to entice the agent. In doing so, he set himself up for the losing role in the successor game of cat-and-rat.

However, this is a film primarily about initiating cults and a tribal male macho alpha culture, a film that takes a dumb film like Frat Party (2009) and shows how a collective culture of self-indulgence and mutual arousal is sustained on the most sophisticated level. There is little interest in the cars and yachts that the money buys other than as symbols of victory for the Prince of Thieves. The helicopter and Lamborghini can be crashed and trashed; the yacht can be sunk. The real thrill is the excitement of battle. Like the fantasy miniseries on HBO, The Game of Thrones, the same themes of a crown prince and loyalty to him, corruption and sexuality, crime and punishment, war and more war, are played out on the monitors of the brokerage offices.

After all, as Matthew McConaughey as Mark Hanna says to Belfort, its all “fergassee”, all fairy dust, glitz and glitter without an iota of reality. What we see is life dressed up as a fantasy and then the realm of fantasy par excellence mimicking that fantasy as if it represented life on Wall Street. The crooked pump and dump brokers are the fairies scattering the fergassee to steal people from this world into the orgiastic world of a bacchanalia. No wonder fairy dust is also known as the semen spilled on the ground in Onanism. With all its swaggering inflated self-indulgence, sudden and enormous bursts of energy, intoxicating mania, cruel vulgarity and grotesque insensitivity, extravagant debauchery and simply filthy, disgusting piggish behaviour, the subject matter and the movie itself are both demonstrations of excessive self-importance. As such, the process of disintegration becomes redundant and boring.

There was a discussion on CBC radio on satire as the exaggeration of the foibles of humanity, but, as one commentator moaned, when the behaviour depicted is so over-the-top, as in the case of Rob Ford, all Jon Stewart can do is put it on display, imitate it and guffaw in dumfounded disbelief, but it is too excessive to satirize, The antics of Belfort and his crew of horny cocksucking assholes are too insane to satirize. Satire is instructive and cleansing. There is no cathartic effect in watching this movie.

So what is the source of the comedy that offers only periodic minute relief from this otherwise tedious and meaningless film, however excellent the acting and the production values? The answer is the uninhibited atmosphere of burlesque, the creation of a caricature of Wall Street that is so ludicrous that it becomes a parody itself of what it represents. The endless scenes of nude and fornicating women are especially characteristic of the bawdy performances that historically were part of the American burlesque tradition often punctuated by physical fights as when Brad and Azoff come to blows or when the macho men roughhouse in the milder versions. That is why the movie is a series of ribald sketches and vignettes, a nostalgic throwback to the spectacle and excessive glitz and glamour of a lost art form. And when the movie is pure burlesque, it is hilariously funny.

This is true of the uproarious Matthew McConaughey scene near the beginning of the film and of the wriggling, crawling DiCaprio near the end of the film as he squirms and slinks home and tries to get the telephone away from his partner in crime, Jonah Hill, and then revives Jonah when he chokes on a rolled up piece of deli. This hilarious burlesque piece of combat and physical fisticuffs between two doped up protagonists is the epitome of excess and the segments that also has the most meaning. For DiCaprio, like the Serpent in the story of Genesis as the objectified erect penis of Adam, is cast down by God into a writhing, wriggling creature incapable of any longer standing on its own. Belfort has been reduced to impotence for the FBI agent has overheard the whole conversation of the conspiracy between these two crooks and their thieving Swiss smooth-as-silk banker.

However, for every great moment of grotesque burlesque-scale debauchery and degeneration, there are long sections where the film takes itself seriously, all-too-seriously. And that is when its character as a piece of work not only about bullying but characterized as a bullying piece of art is revealed. The movie pushes you rather than carries you along for the ride. Where there were opportunities for battle scenes to be equally hilarious, as when Margot Robbie playing Naomi Lapaglia, Belfort’s first mistress and second wife, either withholds her pussy from him or indulges him with intercourse for the last time, instead of another over-the-top inventive piece of burlesque, we get a typical very banal and boring scene of moviedom marital conflict.

Richard Brody in The New Yorker dubbed the movie wild and brilliant and insisted that “anyone who can’t take vast pleasure in its delinquent behaviour is dead from the neck down.” In saying that, he is simply practicing the same bullying character of the movie itself, dissing a member of the audience (me) who found the film boring and accusing that individual of not being able to get his pecker in a dander. The film was very often not compelling to view, and often, to the extent that it was, the experience was of being forced to watch rather than enchanted by what was happening on the screen. Was the insertion of an enema by a dominatrix funny or just gratuitous? The movie was never about ecstasy but only about excess. And when it said it was about excess, it failed to live up to its billing.

In one skit with a modicum of comedy, Rob Reiner, as Belfort’s father, Max, reveals the reason for his nickname as Mad Max for his vile temper contrasted with his polite English-accented voice when he is forced to pick up the phone. We smile and look forward to further innovative playful variations on this double characterization through the rest of the movie. But we are totally disappointed for Mad Max becomes the epitome of trying to enforce some degree of sanity in an otherwise madcap brokerage firm as the brokers, including his own son, carry on their bullying tactics and mock him to his face. The promise of humour proves false.

Another failure takes place in London when Belfort sits on a bench with his wife’s English aunt to convince her to keep his money in her name and Scorcese uses the aside voice of each to express their inner thought that Belfort thinks Emma is coming on to him and, in response to Belfort’s response to that thought, Emma comes to the surprising thought that Belfort is coming on to her. Does the potential for a great comedy of misinterpretation go anywhere? Perhaps it ended up on the cutting room floor. As it is, members of the audience are left frustrated with the lost comedic potential. A similar device between Belfort dissing the smooth Swiss banker while mouthing sweet nothings as the elegant and handsome Swiss banker looks forward to the millions of dollars in deposits as he thinks about the vulgarity of the DiCaprio persona he has to deal with.

What is one to make of the classification of hookers by their cost into blue chips, NASDAqs and skanks or pink sheets? This is certainly the dismissive tone of the “frat” boys to the ladies who suck their cocks. It is the same dismissive tone towards their own clients who are coerced to ejaculate their money into the banks of the brokers.

So as often as there are great scenes of hilarity, just as often there are depressing disappointments while, in between, the skits are linked by a ponderous and repetitive plot, that even in its repetitions had a potential to be funny, but the opportunities were ignored. Given that the movie lacks any dramatic development and is just an increasingly rapid slide into disaster, given that it lacks any character development, given the total absence of any sense of redemption, the movie just drags and bullies one forward as the  recrudescence of another orgy of nudity and sex beats between the periods of relief and abatement like the thumps on Matthew McConaughey’s chest that promised so much at the beginning of the film and failed to deliver.

So the movie ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. Belfort is out of jail and banned from being a stockbroker; he sells salesmanship. He has become a motivational speaker. But when he asks a series of individuals who attend his seminars, how would each of them sell the pen that he hands them, they cannot ask, “Would you mind signing your autograph?’ Instead, each makes in turn an even more pitiable attempt to extol the virtue of the pen for they do not recognize that the first step in salesmanship is instilling in the other the belief that they need your product. Even more importantly, they need you. So the salesman, while maintaining the image of a great success as salesman of selling, is really a pitiable character who has lost his claque that would join in the collective dissing of the incompetent marks of the world