Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of stockbroker and scammer Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is, for much of the movie’s runtime, having a grand time living the high life on other people’s dimes, swindling investors via pump-and-dump stock schemes. Then, law enforcement starts investigating, his substance abuse gets out of control, and his problems with domestic violence become more overt. It all unravels for him in the mid-1990s, by which time the coke-fueled excess of the ‘80s had given way to a no-less-troubling era of high-risk, high-reward tech startups and boiler rooms. It was a high-water mark for the modern American economy in many ways, but plenty of people were suffering at the hands of con artists promising much more than they ever planned to deliver.
The extent to which the film glorifies Belfort (it’s based on his memoir) has been broadly debated, but that ambiguity captures something that’s been deeply baked into our culture at least since the 1980s: We admire bling and we’re fascinated by those who life high on the economic food chain, even when they’e grifted their way to the top. That probably has something to do with Belfort’s continued relevance as a motivational speaker and (more recently) a crypto advocate. After defrauding 1,500 clients for well over $100 million dollars, we’re still interested in what he has to say. The film’s denouement see Belfort out of prison and on the lecture circuit, but it’s presented as yet another con job, ending on a shot of an enraptured audience that turns a mirror on us.
Where to stream: Prime Video, Paramount+, Epix