In Oliver Stone's Wall Street, Michael Douglas's reptilian stockbroker Gordon Gekko famously declared "greed, for lack of a better word, is good".
That film was released in 1987, the year of Black Monday and, by apt coincidence, the year in which the anti-hero of The Wolf Of Wall Street enters New York's financial hothouse as a rookie broker, green but so very greedy. He will make Gekko look like a saint.
Martin Scorsese's epic bacchanal is based on the true story of broker Jordan Belfort, whose firm Stratton Oakmont conned millions out of investors in the 1990s. At the peak of his success, still in his twenties and as a highly functioning drug addict, Belfort was earning a million dollars a week. Inevitably, the FBI decided to take a look.
Drawing on Belfort's autobiography and his own fascination for charismatic crooks, Scorsese charts the broker's rise and fall, focusing on what was an unashamedly grotesque expression of wealth.
The film opens with an office party/orgy, as dozens of brokers cavort with strippers, fire a dwarf from a cannon and shovel cocaine up their noses. Most of the film is like this, led by Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) as an amoral arbiter of excess, a pied piper of infantility. Sometimes speaking directly to the camera, he is also the unapologetic narrator of his own misdeeds. Whatever the filmmakers' actual intentions, this certainly does not play as a morality tale.
In 1987 Belfort is 22, a self-proclaimed "money-crazed little shit" and eager to learn from a maverick old hand (Matthew McConaughey), who instructs his charge in the virtues of cocaine and corruption on the trading floor.
It is a great cameo by the in-form McConaughey (whose star turn in Dallas Buyers Club will be seen in a few weeks) and it is a shame when he disappears from the story after Black Monday. The stock market crash also stalls Belfort's career. But when he bounces back, it is with his own right-hand man, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), one of a number of shady amateurs who take to their boss's blueprint for easy money like ducks to water. The motto of the new firm is "stability, integrity, pride". Like those who created the financial crisis of 2008, these are crooks in the guise of legitimate businessmen.
Terence Winter's script is smart and funny, with dialogue zinging from the screen. Some scenes are wonderfully subtle, notably Belfort's attempt to bribe the Fed on his tail and a flirtation with his elderly English mother-in-law (delectably played by Joanna Lumley). But for the most part the comedy is larger than life, propelled by Scorsese's customary energy and visual panache. An extended sequence in which Belfort and Azoff struggle to overcome an overdose of Quaaludes is a triumph of physical comedy, an instant classic that rivals Tarantino's famed adrenalin scene in Pulp Fiction.
And yet the film disappoints. It is three hours long. After 90 minutes of frantic overload, I expected a change of pace and perspective, a sign of the filmmakers casting a stone. In Goodfellas, Scorsese seduced his hero Henry Hill with the Mafia lifestyle before pulling the rug from under him. Here there is no such change; Belfort does not repent and the film does not let up.
This is clearly a deliberate choice, mirroring real life; after all, Belfort continues to make a mint out of his bad boy rep. However, the tactical display of cynicism is misplaced. Ultimately, the one-note experience does not make one feel angry, or righteous, or better informed, just worn out.