There are three reasons I moved out of New York City. The first was 9/11. I was over 8 blocks away from the World Trade Center when it came down, and my apartment was all the way up in the north Bronx, but seeing the windows of my office go completely black that horrible morning, twice, gave me a mild case of PTSD. So I went back to Southeast Alaska. When I returned back to New York, I found that I could no longer afford to live there, which would be the second reason. The third reason is entirely personal and idiosyncratic: Steve Madden Shoes.
Anybody who lived in New York city in the late 1990s remembers the ads in the subway for Steve Madden Shoes. Women with over-sized heads, tiny arms and legs and bitchy looks on their faces, they were a conscious caricature of urban femininity. For all I know women may have liked Steve Madden’s shoes. They may even have liked his subway ads, but, for me, looking at those images of those angry dolls every morning on the D-Train all the way down from 205th Street in the Bronx was just too much to take. I had begun to feel like Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror.
Steve Madden, as it turns out, was a high school friend of Danny Porush, the co-founder, along with Jordan Belfort, of the “pump and dump” brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont. Steve Madden Shoes was the first company they “took public.” Martin Scorsese’s new movie The Wolf of Wall Street is their story.
Porush, fictionalized as Donnie Azoff, and played by Jonah Hill from Seth Rogan’s Superbad, is a nerd with power. A soft, puffy, effeminate, angry little Pillsbury Dough Boy with man titties and clear glass in horn rim glasses — to make him look more like a WASP—Azoff would normally be a joke, the kind of kid the jocks beat up in high school, and women “friend zone” in their 20s. At best he might grow up to be Chris Christie. But in The Wolf of Wall Street Azoff finds himself in the right place at the right time. Not particularly articulate, or even competent, Azoff, nevertheless, has the one quality essential to success in late 1990s, neoliberal America. He’s completely unethical. That gives him money, which, in the words of Al Pacino from Scarface, also gives him power, and that, in turn, gives access to the best drugs, and, more importantly, to beautiful woman. He doesn’t get bullied. He does the bullying. In one hilariously over the top scene, for example, he catches one of his brokers cleaning a fish tank on the day of the Steve Madden IPO. He fires the man on the spot and eats the fish. If you want to know what “The American Dream” looks like for the frustrated American geek, The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t a bad place to start.
But The Wolf of Wall Street is not Danny Porush’s story. If if had been, Scorsese wouldn’t have fictionalized his name. It’s Jordan Belfort’s, played by the now middle-aged Leonardo DiCaprio. If Donnie Azoff is the Wolf of Wall Street’s Tommy DeVito, then Jordan Belfort is its Henry Hill. An everyman with a gift of gab, a NYC white ethnic with a degree from a non-Ivy-league university, Belfort is a trainee stock broker at the blue chip Wall Street brokerage house L.F. Rothschild. There he comes under the guidance of the senior broker “Mark Hanna” (history nerds will get the Gilded Age tie in), played by a now middle-aged Matthew McConaughey, learns the over the top machismo of Wall Street, and gets started on his drug habit. He seems destined to become just another broker at L.F. Rothschild making six figures, but then luck intervenes. He passes his Series 7 Exam on October 1987, Black Monday. L.F. Rothschild goes out of business, and he finds himself looking for a new job.
Black Monday turns out to be a happy accident. Belfort winds up in a boiler room on Long Island, Investor Center, a low end brokerage house specializing in pushing worthless “penny stocks” to working class people who don’t know any better. He not only masters the job on the first day, he becomes the dominant broker after the first sale. As the assembled employees of Investor Center gather around his desk in fascination as he smooth talks a sucker out of his money, we see the charisma that will carry him to great wealth and fame.
Soon, along with Azoff, he opens up his own boiler room, and, soon after that, he “rebrands” the company Stratton Oakmont, a newly minted “blue chip” firm, a move that gives him access to richer suckers and bigger bank accounts. An attempted “hit job” by Forbes Magazine backfires. It makes him a household name. They should have hired the NY Post instead. After that comes the Steve Madden IPO, and, by the age of 26, Jordan Belfort is worth 50 million dollars. The rest of the movie is as predictable as it is entertaining. Copious amounts of drugs are taken. Hundreds of prostitutes are fucked. Hundreds of millions of dollars of investor money are flushed down the toilet, and, eventually, Stratton Oakmont attracts the attention of the FBI.
(Historical Footnote: Before 9/11, the FBI occasionally prosecuted criminals on Wall Street. This may strike the viewer as dated, even fantastical. But it did happen. Even though the Clinton Administration, like the Obama Administration, generally declined to prosecute major financial criminals at large, blue chip firms like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, they would, at times, throw a small time hustler — and 50 million dollars is chump change on Wall Street —like Jordan Belfort to the wolves. Belfort and Porush did in fact wind up doing a token sentences in minimum security, “country club” prisons.)
Judging by the reviews of The Wolf of Wall Street I’ve read online, which include an “open letter” from Christina McDowell, one of Belfort’s employees, and a man he “ratted on” to the FBI, many people are accusing Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio of “glorifying” Jordon Belfort. That’s debatable. While the film is based on Belfort’s memoir, and does indeed read as a “God I was so drunk last night” story that frat boys tell each other on Sunday morning — and who doesn’t love a frat boy with a hangover — I’m equally sure there are as many people on Wall Street offended by their portrayal as sexist, booze soaked, coke addled jerkoffs as there are people pleased by it. Just because Scorsese gives Belfort some charisma, doesn’t present him as a killjoy like Walter or Skylar White, doesn’t mean he thinks he’s a hero. Indeed, Walter White is the hero. He goes down, in a final blaze of glory, taking out a gang of neo Nazis. Jordan Belfort, on the other hand, goes down ratting out most of his friends to the cops.
What’s more, if the American people look up to men like Jordan Belfort and Donnie Azoff, and they do, that’s not Martin Scorsese’s fault. Just because Scorsese attempts to locate the source of Belfort’s appeal, he’s not romanticizing him. Jordan Belfort succeeds because, in the tawdry world of the 1990s neoliberal United States, he was able to articulate the only thing left about the “American Dream.” Make money. Get rich. Fuck hookers and do drugs. It may not be my ideal, but it sure as hell beats “check your privilege.” If Belfort comes off like a smarmy mediocrity and Azoff like a angry little toad, that’s only because we Americans love smarmy mediocrities and angry toads. Indeed, the final scenes of The Wolf of Wall Street show Belfort as a wannabe cult leader, a “motivational speaker” who’s found his place at last, holding forth like a Baptist preacher about the Gospel of Success. If this had been another time, and Belfort had been black, he might have been Reverend Ike. Azoff, post 9/11, might have been Michael Savage or Sean Hannity. If you don’t like it, don’t blame a movie. Change the culture. Overthrow capitalism. But don’t wag your finger at Martin Scorsese for being an honest filmmaker.
I suppose I should also include a “trigger warning” with this review. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the most misogynistic films I’ve seen in quite some time. Scorsese’s mastery of film allows him to get away with demeaning women in a way a less skilled director couldn’t, but, in spite of a few token female characters with back stories and real personalities, women in The Wolf of Wall Street are largely props. Belfort’s blond, guidette wife is a petty snob — she lets us know that even though she’s got an Italian last name she’s got relatives who are actually British — and a brainless twit who’s too incompetent even to try to Heimlich Donny Azoff when he’s choking to death. She has no job skills, no education, and, as soon as she realizes Belfort is going down, that he’s going to lose most of his money, she files for a divorce. Yes, we are rooting for her to get custody of their daughter “Skylar” but that’s only because Belfort is so drugged out of his mind, we realize he’d probably kill her if he got away. It’s not a hard decision for a family court judge. Between a castrating bitch and a drug addled maniac, the child goes to the castrating bitch. At least she’ll survive into her 20s to go into psychotherapy. In fact, The Wolf of Wall Street is so brilliantly misogynistic that I actually cheered when Belfort punched his wife in the face.
So make of it what you will. Scorsese shows us lots of tawdry, hateful people with tawdry hateful dreams. But ignore it at your peril, Americans. This is the country you live in.