The Wolf of Wall Street

Move over Michael Lewis. His cautionary tale about Wall Street greed – Liar’s Poker– proved to be a great recruiting tool for the mega banks.

When gobsmacked readers discovered the vast riches being made by Lewis’ crazy cast of characters in the biggest money casino going, they flocked to New York and London to claim their share.

Lewis was horrified. But not so horrified that he hasn’t written a string of other excellent books about the so-called Masters of the Universe.

Check out The Accumulator’s review of The Big Shortfor one passive investor’s take.

A wolf in wolf’s clothing

It’s a good thing Lewis banked his royalties while he could, because now director Martin Scorsese has given stockbroking a sordid, glittering makeover that no novel could compete with for sheer flair.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a spectacular celebration of excess in all forms, with a tiny bit of morality tacked onto the end.

It’s almost – but very definitely “not quite” – a combination of Ferris Bueller Grows Up and Scorsese’s own Goodfellas – without the pasta!

It’s a love letter to greed that will send thousands of young cubs to The City and Manhattan in search of their own fast cars and mansions in the Hamptons.

Here’s the trailer:

Yes, I realise the Wolf, Jordan Belfort, ran a boiler room for illegally ramping stocks for profit, not a blue chip stock broker. I spent 30 minutes explaining the difference to some friends afterwards.

But there’s a sliding scale from good to unethical to illegal, as the financial crisis so recently reminded us.

Besides, while a revolving door of prostitutes, midgets, and drug dealers is what made Jordan Belfort’s world go round, it’s always the money that grabs a certain kind of mind’s attention.

And money is back in abundance in finance today by the measures of all normal people, if not quite by Wall Street’s owned distorted measures.

Wolfing it down

The Wolf of Wall Street is a classic, but it’s not a truly great movie. Clips will be shown for the rest of our lives whenever there’s a financial scandal and some of the set pieces are spectacular, but it lacks the narrative arc of, say, The Godfather.

I’m not sure it’s any the weaker for it, though.

The message of the movie is that greed is more or less universal, and that out-of-kilter appetites cannot be satisfied by feeding them. Sticking a clever plot twist onto that might actually have undercut the film’s whole point.

I’d suggest you go and see it if you’re at all interested about money and markets (although the superb Margin Call is a far more realistic depiction of a legitimate Wall Street firm in meltdown).

But you should know The Wolf is not a traditional morality play.

Sure the (anti) hero comes unstuck at the end, but not before he’s had a three-hour blast. The film says these pump-and-dump masters were stupid to get caught. It doesn’t really say they deserved it.

And again, unlike some reviewers I think The Wolf of Wall Street is a better movie for it.

The reality is we live in a society that celebrates and rewards outrageous financial success with yet more success.

The schmucks who go to work for Leonardo DiCaprio’s penny stock peddling firm were crooks, but the film shows how the line separating them and the salesmen at the fancy blue chip firms can be more one of opportunity than ethics.

Who’s the sucker?

Scorsese’s truly masterly touch comes the final few seconds. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the end of the film focuses on a room full of eager everyday people, desperate to learn how to sell dreams for profit from Belfort – who’s by that point a convicted felon.

The Wolf exists because too many of us are willing lambs to the slaughter. But we all have at least some of the Wolf as well as the Lamb in ourselves.

Yes, that goes for the excesses, too.

The Accumulator is a higher being than me and will probably find the hedonistic madness beyond the pale. I don’t mind admitting I could see some of the appeal.

I’d never live like it – heck, I saw the film mid-afternoon because it was a cheap ticket – but I can easily envisage why living like medieval princes at the height of their power in the capital of the intoxicating elixir of money can warp minds.

Sadly, I was saddled at birth with crippling disabilities when it comes to pumped-up hedonism, such as empathy, sentimentality, and a paranoia about my health.

Plus I don’t consider the chance to punch a co-worker in the face for access to a Bloomberg terminal to be a perk of the job.

Just say no

The Wolf of Wall Street is too long, the characters are only redeemed by the comedy, and the revelry eventually drags.

But even if the spectacle isn’t enough to make up for that for you, it should at least be an effective vaccination against ever – ever – giving any money to anybody who cold calls you on the phone

No exceptions – never do it!

Living in a capitalist society means questioning the other side of every financial transaction you ever make.

Take no-one on trust when it comes to your money.

Especially if you trust them.

Postscript

Curiously, when I got home from my trip to the Wolf’s fantasy land, I found I’d been emailed two article suggestions for our Weekend Reading links that covered the flip side of the excessive pursuit of profit.

I’ve already featured the one on mindless accumulation.

But it – together with this confession from a former hedge fund manager who admits he was furious at getting “just” a $3.6 million bonus in his final year – will be vital reading for any Monevator readers who go to see The Wolf of Wall Street and then afterwards find themselves clicking on the Goldman Sachs’ website.

At least you should know how far – or not – making money can get you.

Still, let’s not be too disingenuous. As one reader replied to the author:

I am sorry I took the time to read this article.

You quit after making several million, have set yourself up and now throw darts at the industry.

Give all the money away and start from scratch again and lets see how you feel.

And he’s right.

There will always be money making opportunities, and people who will bend the rules, and cycles that of booms and bust. It will never ever be regulated away, because you can’t legislate away need nor greed. It will always be with us.

That’s the ultimate takeaway from The Wolf of Wall Street.

p.s. Before anyone says the days of hedonism in The City are over – I say give it five years!

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