The Wolf of Wall Street Begs the Question: Who is Responsible for What?

I watch every Martin Scorsese film. I watch every Leonardo DiCaprio film. With two big names like these, you can’t go wrong; or can you?

Christina (Prousalis) McDowell thinks so, and, after reading her open letter to the public entitled “An Open Letter to the Makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf Himself,” published in LA Weekly, December 26th, I’m beginning to think she might be right.

Wolf article

McDowell, the daughter of one of Jordan Belfort’s associates, Tom Prousalis, and, hence, one of the many victims of his illegal activity, begs the question: What is the responsibility of filmmakers?

Major Wilson’s Last Stand, released in 1899, is the first recorded film based on actual events. Prior to 2000, 211 films produced were based on real-life events; while, since 2000, that number has more than doubled.1 What is it about the scandals of others that we, as a society, find so alluring? Now, arguably, not all such films are based on events that inherently ensue victims as collateral damage, such as The Wolf of Wall Street, but many do.

In taking a look at where we are compared to fourteen years ago, I would argue that the aggrandizement of such behaviors as embezzlement, violence, organized crime, excessive substance use, and much more has produced a society whereby our morals and values have crumbled due to our desensitized perception of the world… not to mention our ever-increasingly skewed idea of the American dream (and how to obtain it).

Wolf Review final

Even in a review on Internet Movie Database of Scorsese’s latest film, Brent Hawkins asserts “Under most circumstances, the actions of Belfort and his cronies … would be viewed as disgustingly abhorrent, but Martin Scorsese frames this tale of greed with a comedic lens that allows us to laugh at things we probably shouldn’t find humorous.” And, yet, we are compelled to pay money to watch. True, we (the viewers) make the choice, so can we blame filmmakers like Scorsese and others who make a killing at the box office by exploiting stories like this and others? Or do we blame ourselves for allowing them to exploit a forum that sells?

Reading Christina McDowell’s letter is an eye-opener for me. It asks me to consider the perception of the victim in a way I hadn’t before. I consider myself a seasoned film viewer; I even teach and wrote the curriculum for a high school film course in which we consider a myriad of topics such as how the perceptions of the director and actors affect a story, whether or not the script needs to remain true to its actual source (novel, play, short story, real event). But one topic I hadn’t considered before reading this article is the impact on the victims of a story based on real-life events. 

Christina McDowell, naming “Marty” and “Leo,” charges, “You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.” This ignites an awareness within me that I’d only just given a passing consideration to before. To what degree does this film (and many others) sensationalize immoral behavior? What is the message of the film, particularly to young and impressionable viewers? And, to what degree should the film industry (and other media outlets) be held accountable for societal norms?

There are so many thought-provoking topics to ponder in connection with this letter and film:

1) How responsible is the media for shaping society?

2) Does media reflect or create culture?

3) To what extent is (or should) society be held accountable for fueling the power of the media juggernaut?

The teacher in me hopes this article will ensue a teachable moment for all of its readers. The lesson: the more we support the media’s (movies, news, music, games, internet…) infatuation with scandal of any nature (without questioning or becoming fully informed), the more it (immoral behavior) becomes the reality rather than the exception to it. 

wolf poster

Will I watch the film? I’m still not sure. But I can be sure that I’ll be seeing it from a difference lens, if I do, thanks to Christina McDowell’s letter.



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