As It Collects Awards & Nominations, Wolf of Wall Street Battles Controversy About Whether It Glorifies Its Subject

Sometimes even acclaim and financial success won't stem the tide of criticism.

wolf of wall streetA major Oscar contender (congrats Leo!) that has already picked up a couple of awards (including a Golden Globe for Leo), The Wolf of Wall Street is making headlines for portraying the life and wild times of the swindler Jordan Belfort. Hookers, sex, drugs, money, money, money, and the sweariest movie of all time, the film is going to keep drawing crowds straight through the awards season.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but from what I gather Belfort’s a jerk who bilked a bunch of people out of $100 million in the 1990s and then lived the high life on the spoils. In the trailers and clips, there’s a handsome, chic Leonardo DiCaprio on a yacht, with a marching band in his office, then standing in front of a woman, dressed in her underwear and wrapped in stacks of cash. Some version of the word “hedonism” appears in just about every article written about the movie.

But the film is also drawing a good deal of criticism for what viewers, critics, and Belfort victims say is a glorification of the decadent life that he and his cohorts lived at the expense of others. Nowhere was that frustration more on display than in an open letter written by Christina McDowell and published in LA Weekly.

“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,” she writes to “Marty and Leo.”

Besides the awards, the movie is a bonafide hit, amassing $63.3 million in the first two weeks of its release. Still, Marty, Leo, and others involved have made some explanations about the approach to the film. DiCaprio has called it “a biography of a scumbag.” At the National Board of Review awards, he added, “It is an indictment of this world. We don’t like these people.”

A castmember, Rob Reiner adds, “There’s nothing glorified about a man stealing his child, hitting his wife in the face and being high as a kite.”

Controversy can be good for a movie. Everyone wants to see what all the fuss is about, particularly when it’s an Oscar contender.

But we’re also at a moment when crime victims are asking that the media use discretion when talking about the perpetrators. The New York Times published a story last month about families in Colorado who have asked that the media and others refrain from naming the shooter who opened fire in an Aurora movie theater. There, as in this issue, with Wolf of Wall Street, they feel the attention gives the perpetrators what they crave, perhaps even serving as a motivation for others.

In order to report on a story or make an attempt at fully understanding it, we have to point the spotlight at wrongdoers. The question is what sort of light we’re shining. Society ought to take steps to further understand the different elements — both good and bad — that inhabit it. As Buzzfeed notesWolf of Wall Street depicts its cast of characters as drug abusing, vomitous (and vomiting) people who embarrass themselves and even put their health at risk to live this high life.

The Wolf of Wall Street is the story of an asshole, told from the perspective of an asshole. That might make for a movie that not everyone likes, but it doesn’t make it a fundamentally immoral picture,” the site writes.

Despite the fact that Belfort is despicable, he achieved a level of wealth — even if only for a short while — that many of us would want. Perhaps that adds to the “discomfort” (to use Buzzfeed’s word) about the film. Belfort only served 22 months in jail, is making money off this film, and even has a cameo, so there’s also that.

With these sorts of controversial topics, all those involved (including publicists and their clients) have to be ready to proceed with transparency. Explaining your point of view — why this is a worthy topic and how you dealt with it — is critical. And you have to be ready to take a few hits from those who disagree.