After having watched The Wolf of Wall Street I went online to do some reading about it. It seems that there has been a tendency to see this film as merely a critique of white collar crime and its treatment within the USA, or as a glorification of a hedonistic, money-obsessed way of life. While neither of these descriptions of this film is entirely inaccurate, it seems to me that this film has a meaning that goes beyond this opposition. This film helps us articulate the tension between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in one`s self, and suggests that the latter is not expendable and should not be replaced with purchasable sensuous pleasures.
The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of the rise of Jordan Belfort, and is based off his memoirs. Jordan Belfort becomes a stock broker in the late eighties and after the crash of 1987 finds a way to make vast amounts of money off penny stocks through very dishonest and manipulative sales tactics. His ascent continues as he begins to engage in more explicitly illegal activities to make more money such as money laundering and stock fraud. Ultimately, he makes his fortune largely by cheating people. At the end of the film Jordan is caught and he informs to the FBI about his associates and friends in order to get a reduced sentence. In the end he only serves three years at a ritzy country club prison, and after he is out he continues to make a fortune as a motivational speaker and sales trainer.
Jordan’s life seems to be a never-ending series of parties and money making schemes. He is a drug addict with a particular weakness for Alcohol, Quaaludes and Cocaine, and is presented as being nearly constantly high or drunk. Furthermore, while he has two beautiful wives over the course of the film, he has regular encounters with prostitutes to satiate his urges. His life seems thus to center around the pursuit of sensuous pleasure; this sensuous pleasure takes various forms for Jordan including the pleasure of making the sale, taking drugs or having casual sex. However, somewhat surprisingly, Jordan does not present his life as meaningless, empty or shallow instead he presents his drug and sex fueled escapades as being exhilarating, engaging and fun. In fact, late in the film Jordan gets sober and he comments to his friend that being sober is extremely boring and that he wants to kill himself. These words reveal Jordan’s genuine sense that the life that he ought to be living is one filled with as much drugs as possible. Consequently Jordan Belfort is a person who is totally committed to the pursuit of sensuous pleasure. He is uninhibited by any sense that the pursuit of this set of goods is ultimately unimportant, and there seems little in his life besides these sensuous pleasures.
Our first reaction to Jordan Belfort is likely one of contempt. He does not seem to be doing anything good or meaningful with his life, and he lacks any visible empathy for the victims of his crimes. And this is the sense in which it is true that this film serves as a critique of white collar crime, as we are presented with a wholly unsavory white collar criminal who seems to have little to no redeeming qualities and goes relatively unpunished for his misdeeds. But on the other hand while we feel contempt for Jordan, I think we also have a hidden desire to have a life like his. Many inhabitants of contemporary liberal capitalist society spend a good portion of their free time drinking and pursuing casual sex. While this kind of activity is distinct from Jordan Belfort’s debauchery it is similar in being also directed at sensuous pleasure, and thus we are not so distant from Jordan Belfort in that we too are often driven by the pursuit of sensuous pleasure. Consequently, while we have contempt for Jordan we also see his life as rich in a certain variety of pleasure that we also tend to desire. This conflicting set of judgments about Jordan and his life shows the way in which The Wolf of Wall Street can be said to illuminate the tension between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in one’s self, as we at once disrespect Jordan because he has failed to develop what is best in himself, but recognize that we too participate in the desires that he seems to be absolutely driven by. In this way this film helps us articulate a tension that exists within us between our desire for sensuous pleasure and our concern that we develop what is best in ourselves.
The pursuit of sensuous pleasure should be fairly self-evident by this point in the entry, but I do need to say a few things to clarify the notion of developing what is best in one`s self. The development of what is best in one`s self offers no guarantee of sensuous pleasure, and instead is a form of striving to see that one`s best qualities are fully realized. For example, if I have the capacity for courage I only realize this capacity to its fullest by facing situations that I fear and facing those fears with courage. Over time, this practise will begin to shape who I am and I will become more courageous. As a result the development of what is best in one`s self takes time, commitment and practise, and unlike sensuous pleasure cannot be purchased through money.
Jordan seems to have little concern for developing what is best in himself, rather his ultimate concern seems to be sensuous pleasure, whether it is the sensuous pleasure of drugs, sex or the sale. Whereas most members of the audience are likely in conflict between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in themselves, as they wander between moments of pursuing one goal to pursuing the next, Jordan is only driven by the pursuit of sensuous pleasure. Consequently, the character of Jordan shows us what a person is like when they are only driven by sensuous pleasure. This person who is solely driven by sensuous pleasure may not be evil per se, but they are contemptible, shallow and misguided, as they seem to be pursuing fleeting moment of pleasure that will not assure them any significant meaning in their life. In this way, the character of Jordan shows that eradicating the tension between the pursuit of sensuous pleasure and the development of what is best in one’s self by ignoring the latter leads us to a life that while rich in certain regards seems ultimately vacuous and superficial. In this way the film reveals that there is a still a need for the notion of the development of what is best in one’s self, and that the striving this requires is not something that we can forgo in favour of easily bought pleasurable experiences.