Wolf’s insatiable appetite for excess


"Boiler Room" — Depicts exactly the kind of "pump and dump" penny-stock scheme that made "Wolf of Wall Street" Jordan Belfort very, very rich. Stars Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel and Ben Affleck.

"Wall Street" — Brought us the mantra "Greed is good," which writer-director Oliver Stone may have meant to send chills down viewers' spines, but instead has become the "no duh" basis for much of our financial policy.

"Margin Call" — Doesn't name names, but imagines what the war-room conversations may have been like as Goldman Sachs embraced its vampire-squidness.

"Too Big to Fail" — HBO's film tracks the real negotiations headed by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (William Hurt) as he tries to get the big banks to prop up the failing Lehman Bros.

Documentaries: "Capitalism: A Love Story," Oscar winner "Inside Job" and the jaw-dropper "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," as pure a portrait of ravenous greed and hubris as you will ever see.


“The Wolf of Wall Street”

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Jonah Hill and Kyle Chandler. Directed by Martin Scorsese.

Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence. Check listings for theaters. 3 hours.

And you may ask yourself … why is every movie about Wall Street full of con men and sociopaths? There are probably more sympathetic serial killers in Hollywood fare than heroic stockbrokers. Heck, even mortgage lenders have “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Jimmy Stewart’s character is, after all, essentially a banker.

But the closest thing to heroes that Wall Street films ever get is the innocent guy who becomes a corrupt backstabber, then does something so awful that even he gets disgusted with himself and bravely walks away from the millions.

That’s the hero. The guy who leaves. Or the guy who rises from the primordial ooze.

Jordan Belfort — a real person — is a creature of appetites that would make Jabba the Hutt stop and say, “Hey man, that’s not OK.” An extremely successful stock swindler in the early ’90s and inmate at a correctional country club in the late ’90s, he is a millionaire author and motivational speaker today. His story is a picaresque, his adventures sometimes outrageously entertaining, sometimes stomach-turning, and gilded with the golden vomitus of excess at every turn.

Martin Scorsese’s film version of Belfort’s memoir, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” roundly condemns the profit-over-all culture of the financial sector — by depicting it in all its depraved glory. It is a jaw-dropping portrait of amorality and corruption in which the ever-spiraling cyclone of ill-gotten gains so desensitizes the drug- and sex-addicted protagonists that they have to push themselves further and further over the edge of sanity to make sure they’re having fun.

“Wolf” is “GoodFellas” at the fall of Rome. Leonardo DiCaprio, as Belfort, is initiated into the truth about the profession — as interpreted by a Gordon Gekko-like mentor played by Matthew McConaughey — and it is ugly. “It’s about moving the money from the client’s pocket to your pocket,” aided by copious amounts of cocaine and hookers, says this slick-haired Socrates. The film is a portrait of ratcheted excess that transforms DiCaprio, so recently the noble tycoon Jay Gatsby, into Gatsby’s evil, evil twin.

Wall Street is a natural setting for morality plays, for epic struggles of good and evil. Slick, babe-magnet devils (let’s say Michael Douglas) and cuddly, moral angels (let’s say Martin Sheen) struggle over some innocent’s soul. (We might have said “Charlie Sheen,” but can anyone put that name and “innocent” together without a robust laugh?)

That is the shape of the usual Wall Street drama, sort of “Platoon” in $2,000 suits. In “Boiler Room,” Giovanni Ribisi was the sweet young thing. In “Trading Places,” it was Eddie Murphy. In “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Inside Job,” and “Capitalism: A Love Story,” it was — wait, it wasn’t anyone. Everyone in those movies is a dirtbag. Those are documentaries, without the literary device of a protagonist with a soul to save.

The widely acclaimed “Margin Call” is sort of a “Patient Zero” movie, dramatically riffing off the reported response of investment giant Goldman Sachs (here a fictional doppelganger) to the realization that its reliance on toxic mortgage bonds endangered its existence.

The cure? Spread the disease as widely as possible throughout the financial world. It’s “World War $.”

Perhaps that’s why all these Wall Street movies feel mythical: The entire enterprise seems based on people believing in something that, to most of us, seems to exist only on spreadsheets. People in suits — with computers, making trades in microseconds — determine which of the chickens in the pen is the guest of honor at today’s pecking party. Of the genre, only “Trading Places” tries to attach value to real-world forces, such as weather conditions affecting commodities prices.

So why bother with the real world? The stakes with which these folks are gambling are higher than most can imagine. And that’s not just in dollars; it’s in jobs, in communities. John Wells’ “The Company Men” is one of the only recent films to look closely at the effect of the financial crisis on homes, and even that focuses on the commissioned officers who will have to give up their country club memberships, not the foot soldiers who suddenly are wondering how long their unemployment insurance will last.

No, it’s sexier on the floor — the trading floor, the casino floor, the killing floor. Extravagant rolls of the dice that can make or break a company, fortunes made and lost in a day. It’s stressful. When James Bond is shaken, he enjoys a martini, or a girl, or a kill. When the getters of ill-gotten gains in “The Wolf of Wall Street” need to unwind, it’s hookers and blow for everyone!

And that’s where “Wolf” less resembles “Boiler Room” (another rags-to-Rolexes tale of penny-stock swindlers reportedly inspired by Belfort’s excellent adventures) and “Margin Call” than “The Doors” or “Caligula.” It’s hubris on an Olympic scale.

But heroes? They don’t seem to live on this street.