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'The Wolf of Wall Street': Howls From Hollywood

Tuesday, 18 Jun 2013 | 9:16 AM ET
Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street."
James Devaney | WireImage | Getty Images
Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street."

At long last, it appears that Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" is hitting the big screen.

I say "at long last" because I first started writing about this movie way back in March 2007. In the six years since then, lots have happened—including a massive financial crisis.

The trailer makes the movie look like plenty of fun. It's loaded with the tropes of Wall Street movies—drugs, beautiful women who appear to have post-modern sensibilities, luxury means of transportation, men behaving badly, money raining through the air. But these aren't so much clichés as allusions or even formal aspects of the medium—what rhyme once was to poetry. The test of the artistry will depend on the how well the forms are executed.

The movie is based on a book by the same title by a nasty piece of work named Jordan Belfort, who was convicted of swindling investors out of more than $100 million while he ran a pump and dump brokerage operation that went by the by the improbably WASP-y sounding name Stratton Oakmont.

(Read More: Just Who IS Jordan Belfort?)

He's supposedly reformed himself—although the book is at least as much a celebration of his debauchery as anything else. The book is full of detailed descriptions of sex, drugs and swindling. And, as they say, a good con-man knows how to make a buck going into the scam and another coming out.

At least Belfort can only keep 50 cents on the dollars he makes "coming out." He's obligated to pay the investors he scammed 50 percent of his gross income until they receive $100 million. Even if this movie is the smash hit of the century, Belfort's not going to ever manage that. So you can see the movie without feeling guilty—or feeling less guilty, since some of the money should go to the victims.

The film appears to be deeply committed to what you might call the Immoral Market Hypothesis: markets are irrational, manipulated and deliver the greatest rewards to those least enthralled by ethics. This, too, is part of the formal aspect of Hollywood depictions of Wall Street, easily recognizable from Oliver Stone's "Wall Street," "Boiler Room" and "American Psycho."

It makes no difference that this story is based on truth. There are plenty of true stories in the world. Something about this story was so appealing to Scorsese that he optioned the book before it was even published. This wasn't just a true story about Wall Street Scorsese wanted to tell. It was the story—true or not—he wanted to tell.

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Why does Hollywood insist on portraying Wall Street as a place of villainy? The late Larry Ribstein, a law professor seriously interested in how Hollywood portrayed business, crafted the best explanation I've come across: resentment. From his paper "Imagining Wall Street":

[F]ilms' portrayal of business reflects the tension between filmmakers and the capitalists who finance them. The artists resent that the capitalists, on whom they depend to finance their productions, demand business rather than artistic success, forcing them sometimes to compromise their art. Filmmakers are more prone to this resentment than other artists, such as novelists, who may need to earn a living in a profit-obsessed world, but at least can create their works without having to deal with the capitalists.

In other words, Hollywood hates Wall Street at a deep, personal level. Ironically, Wall Street doesn't mind this very much. Each of those movies I named above—"Wall Street," "Boiler Room," "American Psycho"—are loved by many who work on Wall Street. No doubt "The Wolf of Wall Street" aims at entering the pantheon.

—By CNBC's John Carney. Follow him on Twitter @Carney.

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