“The Wolf of Wall Street” is nauseating, pornographic and soul-crushing — and you have to see it.
You have to see it, because you — meaning society, Jews, all of us as individuals — have to face the questions it raises about money, wealth and morality.
Director Martin Scorsese is taking some heat for depicting Jordan Belfort as a likable rogue. Yes, Belfort lies, steals and snorts avalanches of coke off naked tushees, but he loves his dad, has a great run and, after all, he’s Leonardo DiCaprio. A generation of young men will now flock to Wall Street aping Belfort, just as a generation of drug dealers took their cues from Al Pacino in “Scarface.”
I don’t blame Scorsese. His genius is to examine society’s most grievous sins through its most colorful practitioners. True, he doesn’t show the effects of Belfort’s crimes on their victims — the families wrecked by financial loss and legal troubles, the people who fell for the cons and paid with their nest eggs. Then again, the movie is told entirely from Belfort’s point of view, and Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter probably assumed Belfort has never spent two seconds thinking about the human suffering he caused — unless it was his own.
But I do regret that Scorsese chose not to deal with the fact that Jordan Belfort is Jewish. Although some of the characters in “Wolf,” like Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff, are clearly portrayed as Jews, even to the point of wearing chai necklaces around their coke-frosted necks, Belfort, with his Anglo looks and Frenchy name, is left to be simply American. I get it: To do otherwise might give the movie a whiff of anti-Semitic caricature. Scorsese feels much safer depicting the Italian-ness of his violent mobsters than the Jewishness of his greedy con men.
But, just between us, let’s talk about Belfort-the-Jew — let’s go there. In the movie, you never really understand how someone so gifted can be so morally unmoored. But in his memoir, upon which the movie is based, whenever Belfort refers to his Jewish roots, the diagnosis becomes more apparent.
He is a kid from Long Island. His dad, Max, grew up “in the old Jewish Bronx, in the smoldering economic ashes of the Great Depression.” Belfort didn’t grow up poor by any means, he just wasn’t rich enough. The hole in him wasn’t from poverty, but from desire for acceptance. The “blue-blooded WASPs,” Belfort writes, “viewed me as a young Jewish circus attraction.”
Belfort had a chip on his shoulder the size of a polo pony, and so did everyone he recruited. They were, he writes, “the most savage young Jews anywhere on Long Island: the towns of Jericho and Syosset. It was from out of the very marrow of these two upper-middle-class Jewish ghettos that the bulk of my first hundred Strattonites had come….”
It’s not complicated, really. Poor little Jordan wanted to show those WASPs whose country clubs he couldn’t join that he was smarter, richer, better. What he failed to understand is that just about every Jew, every minority, shares the same impulses. But only a select few decide the only way to help themselves is to hurt others.