Tackling crime, greed, and corruption, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street explores the insidious underbelly of modern American life. Based on the true memoir of a former Wall Street broker, the 2013 film follows the story of Jordan Belfort as he navigates wealth, Wall Street, and the federal government over a 10-year period. At its release, The Wolf of Wall Street was highly controversial, garnering attention because of its hyperbolic depiction of sex, drugs, and superfluous swearing. The film subverts the typical rags to riches story. It stylizes the lives of the ultra-wealthy, choosing to highlight the opulence, drug abuse, and overall corruption of Wall Street officials. At the same time, however, the film’s exaggeration of Jordan Belfort’s lifestyle and eventual downfall illustrates an intrinsic American fixation on wealth and the perversion of the modern American Dream. It hypothesizes that the pursuit of wealth has become embedded in American values, leading to the creation of a hedonistic culture.
The Wolf of Wall Street puts forward Jordan Belfort as a symbol of the American Dream, glorifying his rise to wealth as he reaches for maximum success. The film begins in 1987, showing Belfort’s humble beginnings and his first day on Wall Street. As he arrives he states, “With that in mind, at the tender age of 22, after marrying my girlfriend Teresa, I headed to the only place that befit my high-minded ambitions…” Arriving on Wall Street, Jordan sticks out. He wears an ill-fitting grey suit among a sea of perfectly tailored, black suit wearing brokers. He goes through his day with puppy dog eyes, in awe of the powerful men around him who have gotten rich off of Wall Street. It’s clear from the moment he steps off the bus, that Belfort is
closer to the everyday working-class man than the ultra-wealthy elite he so worships. This allows audiences to sympathize with him, relating to his desire to break through to the upper echelon. Belfort eventually makes it to the world of the wealthy, becoming a multimillionaire by his late 20s and achieving the American Dream. According to Suzanne Ferriss’s article, “Refashioning the Modern American Dream: The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street, and American Hustle”, the modern American Dream is defined by an obsession with capitalism, individual entrepreneurship, and self-display (Ferriss). Ferriss’s definition of the American Dream is extremely useful because it sheds light on this country’s ever-changing values and it is the perfect example of what Jordan Belfort embodies. As depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street, the American Dream is no longer limited to achieving modest goals but rather accruing excessive wealth, living lavishly, and flaunting your cash. Up until the very end of the film, Belfort is rewarded for his amoral lifestyle and disregard for the law. In fact, the main source of his wealth was built on corrupt practices and stealing from the middle class. Despite all this, the film almost fetishizes Belfort’s wealth, creating a new ideal for everyday Americans. A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center on wealth in America addresses this degradation of the American Dream, revealing that about 90% of lower and middle-class citizens think very highly of the rich and aspire to reach their astronomical levels of wealth (Parker). This shows that many Americans still hold the naive assumption that the majority of upper-class Americans gained their wealth by ‘pulling themselves up by their bootstraps’, thus making their level of luxury achievable to all. When in reality, over a third of upper-class families are born into wealth rather than earning it. Not only does Jordan Belfort embody the modern American Dream, but he is also representative of a larger shift in American sensibility towards the glorification of financial excess.
Through its layered portrayal of the faults of the wealthy, the film criticizes modern America’s ambivalent attitude towards wealth and celebrity. The film opens on Jordan Belfort giving the audience a monologue introducing himself and outlining his journey to wealth. It
shows his childhood, displaying images of an All-American boy selling innocuous things like lemonade and ice. This establishes Belfort’s industrial spirit, indicating that his dreams as a salesman begun at a young age. The scene is innocent enough and over these images, Belfort states, “The year I turned 26, I made 49 million dollars as the head of my own brokerage firm–”. The audience is led to feel kinship or even admiration for the character. He started selling things at a young age, and we are led to assume that it was his hardworking spirit that got him to the success that he has today. This assumption switches, however, when the scene cuts to an image of Jordan Belfort speeding in a Ferrari as he continues speaking, saying, “–which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week”. This completely subverts the audience’s expectations of Belfort, revealing him to be greedy and money-hungry instead of earnest and diligent like we’re led to believe. Not only has Belfort reached the status of a multimillionaire, but he is also dissatisfied with his wealth, aiming even higher. However, despite Belfort’s gross display of wealth, his determination to acquire more is seen as equally alluring. Thomas Salek’s article, “Money Doesn’t Talk, It Swears: The Wolf of Wall Street as a Homology for America’s Ambivalent Attitude on Financial Excess” explains this phenomenon saying:
In June of 2016, public opinion polling indicated that only 37% of Americans viewed the entire financial sector positively—an increase from a low point of 11% following 2008. However, Americans remain fascinated by the rich, granting them cultural and political power. In November of 2016, nearly half of America voted billionaire-celebrity Donald Trump to the nation’s highest office, despite his known past with allegedly unethical business practices, racism, and misogyny. (Salek).
Salek draws an interesting link between public opinion on wealth and how it connects who exactly has power in this country. Although I disagree with Salek’s assumption that the recent election of Trump is based solely on America’s obsession with the rich, I fully endorse his final conclusion that America’s mixed attitude on the wealthy allows the rich to continue acquiring positions of power. In the film, the reason Belfort is able to go on for so long without being taken down by the federal government
was because of the supporting characters’ willingness to turn a blind eye to his amoral acts. This, in turn, is replicated in current American society, with the elite being subject to both disapproval and awe. The extravagant lifestyles of the film’s Wall Street brokers highlight a modern hedonistic mentality that prioritizes pleasure over moderation. The film is notorious for its unabashed portrayal of pleasure and greed. Each of the characters routinely overindulges in drug use, prostitutes, and excessive spending. In one of the most infamous scenes of the film, Jordan Belfort hosts one of many wild company parties at his home. He and his associates openly snort cocaine off of tables, money, and even women. They also drink heavily, take quaaludes, and swear profusely, giving in to their every urge. This scene is a far cry from where our protagonist originally started, refusing to even drink during a meal. Finally financially secure, Belfort and many of the other characters seem to prioritize fleeting moments of pleasure over anything else, whether that be in the form of sex, drugs, or luxury. This aspect of the film is reflective of a modern American pursuit of temporary happiness. In a 2016 Vox article about the United States and pleasure, Ruth Whippman discusses this experience by explaining how each year Americans spend billions of dollars on self-help books, luxury items, and happiness seminars (Whippman). As Whippman suggests, it is clear that Americans invest a lot of time and money on fleeting thrills. Although The Wolf of Wall Street represents a subcategory of Americans whose hedonistic impulses are slightly more extreme than the average Americans, the film still offers an interesting example of how American priorities have shifted in recent decades towards superficial happiness. The evolution of technology has made it easier for US citizens to pursue other interests and focus on maximizing their pleasure. That being said, the pursuit of happiness isn’t always successful. In a study conducted by UC Berkeley on happiness and overall satisfaction, researchers found that the higher respondents rated happiness as a personal goal, the more likely they were to experience symptoms of dissatisfaction and depression in life (Whippman). Applying this to wider America, this study suggests that this country’s fascination with immediate pleasure is actually having the opposite effect, leaving people more depressed than before. As The Wolf of Wall Street depicts, many current
Americans have chosen to pursue temporary happiness, even at the expense of their long term well-being.
Despite Belfort’s overindulgence and subsequent fall from grace, his ability to bounce back from complete bankruptcy by the end of the film suggests a cyclical relationship between ambition, success, and the American Dream. The film’s major conflict comes to a head when Jordan Belfort is finally arrested for fraud and forced to spend 22 months in prison. Logically, this could have been where the film ended, painting Belfort’s story as a cautionary tale about the perils of greed. However, this is not where Scorsese chooses to end the film. He instead immediately cuts to Belfort on stage in front of a large audience. He gives a motivational speech on wealth and how to acquire it, becoming once again a multimillionaire despite being fresh out of prison. The ending is referential, nodding to the first scene of the film by hinting at Belfort’s potential to reach the same level of financial excess he had in the past. Because of this seemingly optimistic ending, the audience is left to interpret whether or not to condemn Belfort for his actions. The ending has sparked some controversy, however, with many critics who argue that the film promotes the glorification of white-collar criminals. In an open letter about the film, writer Christina McDowell and member of one of the families victimized by Jordan Belfort condemns the film, maintaining that it does a poor job of displaying the consequences of Belfort’s actions. She says, “Belfort’s victims, my father’s victims, don’t have a chance at keeping up with the Joneses. They’re left destitute, having lost their life savings at the age of 80…What makes you think this man deserves to be the protagonist in this story?” (McDowell). In her opinion, the film’s ambiguity is dangerous. By not openly condemning Belfort’s actions, she suggests that the film objectifies him and even goes as far as to make him an example for others. However, in a PBS interview about the film, director Martin Scorsese counters McDowell’s claims, asserting that the film intentionally presents the characters ambiguously: “…one of the reasons I resisted at first, I didn’t want to make any apologies for the way they behaved, in a sense” (Scorsese). In this interview, Scorsese tries to make it clear that his purpose as the director was to present an objective portrait of Belfort, highlighting both his strengths and faults.
This is not to say that Scorsese’s portrayal of Jordan Belfort serves as a blueprint for the current American Dream but rather that his ambivalent depiction provides a commentary on the layered public opinion of the rich in modern America. In Scorsese’s version of The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort is neither good nor bad but rather a reflection of a modern American mentality that prioritizes the pursuit of excess wealth and luxury above all.
The themes presented in The Wolf of Wall Street reach deep into the core of modern America. Calling to attention the perversion of traditional American ideals, the film highlights a new era obsessed with wealth, self-image, and power. Even years after its initial release, Jordan Belfort’s story seems to be permanently situated at the forefront of pop culture. The American public looks to Belfort as a cautionary tale, a symbol of wealth and its pitfalls, and even as a role model. In fact, Belfort has become a popular symbol of wealth with many Americans going as far as to dress up like him, hold ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ parties, or even become Wall Street brokers themselves. In one of the most famous scenes of the film, Belfort gives a speech to his associates on the future of his company. The scene is tense, with the employees unsure of how Jordan will react in the face of adversity or with the future of the company. However, Belfort manages to rile up the crowd, screaming “I’m not fucking leaving! The show goes on!” This quote echoes today, speaking to the film’s tenacity and relevance in contemporary culture. In the dawn of a new decade, The Wolf of Wall Street remains steadfast, painting a portrait of a new America, an America ambivalent to celebrity and excess wealth.
Ferriss, Suzanne. “Refashioning the Modern American Dream: The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street, and American Hustle.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 41, no. 2, 2018, pp. 153–175., doi:10.1111/jacc.12869.
McDowell, Christina. “An Open Letter to the Makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf Himself.” LA Weekly, 23 May 2019,
Parker, Kim. “Yes, the Rich Are Different.” Pew Research Center, 31 Dec. 2019, www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/08/27/yes-the-rich-are-different/.
“The Wolf of Wall Street.” Charlie Rose, PBS, 19 Dec. 2013.
Salek, Thomas A. “Money Doesn’t Talk, It Swears: The Wolf of Wall Street as a Homology for America’s Ambivalent Attitude on Financial Excess.” Communication Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 1, Feb. 2017, pp. 1–19., doi:10.1080/01463373.2017.1323767.
Scorsese, Martin, director. The Wolf of Wall Street. Paramount Pictures, 2013.
Whippman, Ruth. “America Is Obsessed with Happiness – and It’s Making Us Miserable.” Vox, 4 Oct. 2016,