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Wolf of Wall St – an Amorality Tale

October 18, 2014

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We have a kid.  We don’t get to see grown up movies until everyone else has seen them.  A year ago, we thought we might have a chance of a sitter and we planned to go to see Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, because when you get that opportunity, you don’t want to waste it on a PG certificate. You sniff out the least kid friendly movie you can find – you want to see every kind of depravity icon box ticked. And heck, if it’s unsuitable for people with photosynthetic epilepsy – we’d take that too.

Last night we finally saw the movie  On TV.  At home.  We’d been told it was Scorsese’s most fun movie since Goodfellas, and the similarities are obvious – the autobiographical narration, the regrets, the nostalgia for the high life.  The very high life.  After Casino, Robert de Niro decided he didn’t want to work for a living anymore, just do impressions of himself.  Leonardo di Caprio was duly installed as Scorsese’s go to actor in de Niro’s place.

The movie is about someone called Jordan who has done nothing with his life.  His only talent is to persuade people to give him money whether or not he has anything to give back in return.  The talent of being able to persuade someone that they have one chance to buy something is, however, the talent that our society has decided to reward over and above every single concrete talent you can imagine.  Jordan’s story is packed with sex and drugs and other melodramatic ways of wasting money.  However, the film is very careful not to suggest that these are people who work tremendously hard at the office and then need to play very hard at night.  In this film, the office is the debauchery, the partying is the work.  The trading floor and the swimming pool are the same place – the same crazy level of consumption with the same people  When you snort cocaine through a hundred dollar bill you are celebrating two drugs, not one – or rather you are dressing up the money rather than channeling the drug.   The idea that finance capitalism is addictive – a form of wasting substance abuse – is well made in the film.  And it’s made again and again for nearly three hours.

This is OK because pointless repetitive addictive behaviour is, by definition, highly addictive.  From our safe, contained little lives with our finite paychecks and lengthy internalised lists of reciprocal obligations we find it enjoyable to gawp at someone like Jordan.  And we find ourselves rooting for him.  And then we find ourselves kicking ourselves for rooting for him.

This is not a morality tale.  This is not a rise and fall story.  At one point Jordan says that he’s been rich and he’s been poor, but no state of even relative poverty is described.  Even prison is quite privileged and it’s a belated glimpse anyway.  At the end of the movie, Jordan is selling himself – because the publicity generated by his trial and imprisonment has created a new market for people who are prepared to pay to listen to someone who can sell garbage.  What should have been the terms of of his failure and shame become the terms of his reinvention.

This is not an amoral film.   Most films are amoral – trying to cram enough spectacle and sensation into a two hour shaped bucket.  An amoral film has no concept of morality – but Wolf of Wall Street does.  What it is  is an Amorality Tale – a film about amorality, a film which reaches beyond the spanking of a very bad boy who has let himself and everyone else down.  This is a film about capitalism, and a film in which the amorality of the economic universe refuses to sanction any form of duplicity or loss.  It’s about a consequence-free world for people who can sell the perception of immense world.  There’s no “getting it wrong” or “getting it right” – there is only adrenalin.

The point becomes not so much the slapping of Jordan, but the chilling realisation that our political masters have decided that crazed drug addictions like Jordan should be allowed to rule the universe on our behalf.

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