Films that both teach and entertain are few and far between. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” adapted from the book by scam artist Jordan Belfort, is not one of them — in fact, it fails miserably in both departments. This is the fifth collaboration by director Martin Scorsese and his muse Leonardo DiCaprio. This one takes us for a three-hour, stomach-churning tour depicting greed, drug abuse and debauchery of all sorts.
DiCaprio narrates and talks directly to the camera, propelling Belfort to the Nth degree of sleaze while explaining his character’s meteoric rise to wealth. After paying his dues in the late 1980s at a large Wall Street brokerage, Belfort made cold calls for a small penny stock brokerage. Here he discovered the 50 percent commissions available for trading sketchy pink sheet stocks. Within a month Belfort’s take was $70,000 per month. Given his unquenchable desire for drugs and women, Belfort needed even more, so he struck out on his own to found Stratton Oakmont – named purely for the inferred blue-blood pedigree.
After Belfort recruited his eager neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and the best drug dealers Belfort knew as his salesmen, he set up shop in a converted warehouse where the new hires learned Belfort’s script for selling to those eager to believe in the easy money promised.
Soon he trades these Spartan digs for tony Manhattan office space where his operation grows exponentially. From this point forward time spent at Belfort’s company documents office-wide, drug-fueled orgies with prostitutes, tossing little people at VELCRO targets for entertainment and the occasional feint lecture delivered by his father (Rob Reiner), serving as the firm’s accountant.
The film spends most of its remaining two-plus hours following Belfort’s efforts to chase down Naomi (Margot Robbie) and stay stoned on cocaine, crack or the quaaludes used to amp up his sexual encounters with prostitutes. Despite the occasional comic moment resulting from Belfort’s overindulgence, the remaining portion of the film is a repetitive loop of Belfort’s outrageous behaviors on an increasingly grander scale, reflecting his increasingly grander means. The only relief is offered during the final 30 minutes, when the FBI finally investigates Belfort because the SEC lacks the teeth to prosecute him.
Eventually Belfort makes a deal with federal prosecutors, but the film twists the deal to make it appear as though Belfort refused to rat out his best friend and partner Donnie, when he actually sold Donnie down the river as part of a cushy 22-month sentence served in a federal country club.
Not shown in the movie is the court ordering Belfort to pay back $110 million of the $200 million he swindled from investors. After profiting more than $2 million from his book and the movie rights to date, Belfort has repaid just $243,000. It appears prosecutors have allowed him to skate by without repercussion. It begs the question whether seeing the grossly unpleasant “Wolf of Wall Street” only further lines Belfort’s pockets while the big bad wolf’s investors continue to live with their houses blown down.