Who’s afraid of the 'Wolf of Wall Street?'

Katrina Bishop and Sarah Rappaport
CNBC catches up with the stars of Wolf on Wall Street
CNBC catches up with the stars of Wolf on Wall Street

"The Wolf of Wall Street," Martin Scorsese's depiction of corruption and greed on the trading floors of the 1990s, has certainly divided critics.

TIME magazine's Richard Corliss said the movie covering the highs and lows of Wall Street stockbroker Jordan Belfort is "bathing in amorality until it drowns." The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern, meanwhile, said he couldn't wait for the "hollow spectacle" to end.

But many others were bowled over, with the Los Angeles Times' Betsy Sharkey arguing that the movie will have you hating the "Wall Street high rollers" even more than you do already.

(Read more: Strippers, dwarfs & coke: The real Wall Street)

Jonah Hill, one of the stars of the film, told CNBC about the Wall Street portrayed in the movie, saying: "I've never seen anything close to the excess of what we did in this film in Hollywood."

He defended director Scorsese, saying he doesn't think the movie glorifies crime, but rather lets the audience judge what was right and what was wrong, and displays "the pitfalls of excessive behavior."

Wolf of Wall Street realistic?
Wolf of Wall Street realistic?

Audiences have piled in to see the movie, which has made over $66.4 million in the U.S. between its release on Dec, 25 and Jan. 7, according to the movie industry website Box Office Mojo. The film, which is estimated to have cost around $100 million to make, will be released in the U.K. next Friday.

The "Wolf of Wall Street" is the latest in a long line of financial movies based on the excesses of the financial sector's high-fliers, which began with the original "Wall Street," released in 1987. This was followed by movies including "Boiler Room" – in 2000 – and since the onslaught of the latest global financial crisis, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" (2010), "Margin Call" (2011) and "Arbitrage"(2012).

Moral payoff

But what is it about these movies depicting amoral excess that appeals to audiences—who are often so far removed from the financial sector?

"There are two sides to the story: First, you've got someone living the high life—and then you've got their fall," film critic Rich Cline, editor of the movie website Shadows on the Wall, told CNBC.

(Read more: Steven Spielberg: Film Industry Implosion Lies Ahead)

"We love watching people living to excess and breaking the rules, but there's a moral payoff here; you know they're not going to get away with it."

He described the "Wolf of Wall Street" as "the most riotous bank movie" he had ever seen.

Based on a true story, the film depicts the journey of aBelfort—played by Leonardo DiCaprio—from trading penny stocks to founding Stratton Oakmont brokerage and enjoying the accompanying life of affluence to excess.

"Money. Power. Women. Drugs. Temptations were for the taking and the threat of authority was irrelevant," the movie's promotional website said. "For Jordan and his wolf pack, modesty was quickly deemed overrated and more was never enough."

Margot Robbie, who plays Naomi, Belfort's second wife, told CNBC that she came away from the filming with her own take on Wall Street.

(Read more: 'Wolfof Wall Street': Jordan Belfort interview)

"It's astounding how everyone could get by and make so much money without knowing what was really going on. That's the view I seemed to get from everyone. It's like throwing things to a wall to see what would stick, and if it would work, then they would do it."

'Real' Wolf of Wall Street
Meet the 'real' Wolf of Wall Street

'Completely exaggerated'

Joe Rundle, head of trading at ETX Capital, London, stressed that the trading floors depicted in these types of films are often far removed from reality.

"It is completely exaggerated. Trading rooms are quieter, calmer environments than those in the films," he told CNBC. "In the film there's a scene where girl in underwear has money taped to her—that certainly doesn't happen on my trading floor."

He added that he often interviews young job applicants who say they want to be a trader because of the glamorous lives captured in these films.

"I have to warn them it's not like that—and it might be 30 years before they buy their first Ferrari," he said.

But Rundle added that this exaggeration was the essence of the movies' appeal. "We can characterize the leads as evil villains—whilst at the same time enjoying their ridiculous lifestyles."

Interestingly, though, audiences often fail to make the link between the excesses depicted in the films to those that actually helped cause the financial crisis of 2007, according to Cline.

(Read more: Did bonuses really cause the financial crisis?)

"Audiences assume that 'The Wolf of Wall Street' is about the 1980s, but it's not. It's about now. People are still doing this," he said.

"It's mind-boggling that viewers haven't made this connection and aren't leaving the movie theatres calling for those people to be brought to account."

CNBC is part of NBC Universal, which is the distributor for "Wolf of Wall Street" across Europe.

By CNBC's Katrina Bishop and Sarah Rappaport. Follow them on Twitter @KatrinaBishop and @SarahRapp.