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'The Wolf of Wall Street'Image: Paramount Pictures

'The Wolf of Wall Street'

Belfort gets rich because, as he puts it, everyone wants to be rich, and he can dangle that promise in front of them and reap all the rewards for himself. Yet he sells not by convincing people that they want money, but that they want a particular life. (The movie makes a small, but important nod to what the "big guys" like Goldman and Lehman are doing while Belfort's scampering around: collateralized debt obligations—which include the sort of securities that made subprime mortgates possible. Those are the debt instruments that took down the global economy not too long ago by making it possible for people buy houses they couldn't afford.)

Money, too, brings power—the power to get what you want, the power to make people do what you want, and the power to escape misery. And power is intoxicating. Handled unwisely, it quickly turns to corruption, as a thousand movies and television shows illustrate in vivid detail.

There is certainly a legitimate place for market-making and investment and wealth; those are the rails on which an economy runs. What Wolf of Wall Street (and Gatsby and Mad Men and Boogie Nights) reminds us is that guys like Belfort find the loopholes and get away with their excesses because they're selling our desires back to us.

He's in the wrong. That's for sure. But to walk away and not realize we're at least a little complicit, too, would be foolhardy.

Caveat Spectator

Few CT readers would be glad they saw this film, so let's just stave that off at the outset. Take a quick mental inventory of the commandments handed down on Mt. Sinai: they're definitely all broken here, with the possible exception of murder, often quite graphically (the film got what we might call a "hard R"), generally with glee—though from what I know of certain pockets of Wall Street culture, this movie is no overstatement.

I can't really enumerate everything here, but here's a sampling: Nudity of all sorts, male and female. Profanities and obscenities from start to finish. Rampant drug use of many varieties, including cocaine, alcohol, crack, and a bunch of pills you supposedly can't get anymore. Prostitution, crossed with drugs and other things, occurs. Several people get beat up badly, sometimes drawing blood. People vomit and spit and spew. People get very high. People mimic the sexual act frequently and perform it quite a bit, too. There's a long scene discussing what I guess can only be described as "midget throwing" in fairly offensive terms. One character is married to his first cousin, and a crass conversation ensues that also uses an offensive word for the mentally disabled. Masturbation is discussed, and in one case happens on screen while a character is very, very under the influence. Characters, obviously, cheat on their wives. I could go on, but all this (and more I'm forgetting) mostly conspires to paint an accurate picture of Belfort's level of debauchery. The crowd did audibly gasp and tut in one scene, in which a declining Belfort hits his wife, then punches her in the stomach.

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