Stephen McGinty: Tale of Wolf set to make killing

Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorcese's The Wolf of Wall Street. Picture: Contributed
Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorcese's The Wolf of Wall Street. Picture: Contributed
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LEONARDO DiCaprio’s new film has been attacked as being too much of a celebration of a crook’s success. Stephen McGinty wonders whether that is a reason to shun it

I haven’t yet seen The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s new movie about the corrupt stockbroker who fleeced $200 million from his blue-collar clients and spent it on prostitutes, drugs and a succession of dwarfs to toss, but I have received an e-mail from the film’s lupine “star”.

Jordan Belfort, who is played by Leonardo di Caprio, was eventually sentenced to 22 months imprisonment for fraud and is now working as a motivational speaker.

Shortly after logging on to his website yesterday morning I received a chatty e-mail: “Hi Stephen, It’s Jordan Belfort, and I’d like to welcome you personally, and thank you for your interest in having me help you improve your sales, persuasion abilities, and business skills.”

After offering a link to an “exclusive interview with the real Wolf of Wall Street” he said he would be e-mailing me shortly with another “complimentary video presentation” that will help me in every area of my business life. The e-mail was signed: “Talk soon, Jordan Belfort.” Ever since my disappointment on realising that Barack Obama had no real intention of inviting me to the White House for dinner with him and Michelle despite his constant e-mails asking for $5, I’ve grown rather cynical about overly familiar e-mails from people I have yet to meet.

Yet the e-mail offered an interesting insight into the growing controversy around the movie, which opens in Britain next weekend. The question that has been raised is whether the film is too much of a celebration of Belfort’s excess at the expense of his 1,513 victims? There are those who think it is indeed. Hope Holiday, an actress who appeared in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, described the film on her Facebook page as: “three hours of torture” and a fellow viewer shouted at Martin Scorsese, who was in the audience: “Shame on you!”.

This made me think two things: 1) what is Hope Holiday, who is 75-years-old, doing on Facebook? and 2) would America care less if Belfort was a murderous mobster rather than a banker? Leonardo DiCaprio, who spent ten years developing the movie based on Belfort’s memoir, has said in its defence: “This film may be misunderstood by some, I hope people understand we’re not condoning this behaviour, that we’re indicting it.”

One person who would disagree with DiCaprio’s defence is Christina McDowell, who wrote an open letter to the actor and Scorsese which was printed in LA Weekly magazine. McDowell was forced to change her name after her father, Tom Prousalis, who was a partner of Belfort, tried to use her name on an account to hide money.

When her father was tried, Belfort was to be the star witness against him after having struck a deal with prosecutors. Christina, as an 18-year-old, went from flying in her father’s private jet, to having to steal food from her boyfriend’s fridge at night rather than admit she didn’t have enough money to eat. In the letter she said the shame she has carried over the past decade was now being passed on to the film-makers: “So here’s the deal. 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 phoney financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behaviour brought America to its knees.

“And yet you’re glorifying it … Did you think about the cultural message you’d be sending when you decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn’t made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behaviour… Belfort’s victims, my father’s victims, don’t have a chance at keeping up with the Joneses. They’re left destitute, having lost their life savings at the age of 80. They can’t pay their medical bills or help send their children off to college because of characters like the ones glorified in Terry Winters’ screenplay.”

It seems clear from Belfort’s website that, even if it is an “indictment” as Leo insists, he also views it as an advert for his considerable powers of persuasion. In the film, as in real life, Belfort devised a highly successful system of selling, which he insists is even better now than when he fleeced 1,500 “sheep”. As he helpfully explained in a “PS” to my e-mail: “This program wasn’t fictional – it was real, and now it’s being used by sales persons, businesses, closers, and persuasion pros all around the world. And, even better: it’s even more effective than it was in the early days, thanks to the emphasis on ethical persuasion tactics, and the latest discoveries in the world of persuasion psychology.”

At the time of his conviction, Belfort was ordered to repay $110.4 million to his victims. While £10.4 million was refunded from sales of his property and collection of cars, he was also ordered to pay 50 per cent of any future income. In October, Federal prosecutors stated that he had earned $1,767,209 from his two memoirs and the movie rights, which sold for $1m but he had only repaid $243,000 in the past four years. As Entertainment Weekly said of the film: “There are no wages of sin on this street – in fact it looks like sin pays pretty damned well.”

So is there an argument for not going to see The Wolf of Wall Street? Yes, if you were one of his victims, or if you knew one of them, then, of course, why would you wish to see what was possibly the worst time of your life re-cast as a Hollywood comedy?

As for the rest of us, it’s a movie, it’s entertainment, and will be treated as such. If like me, you adored Goodfellas and Casino, the ethics of glamorising the Mob didn’t come into the equation, the only criteria was: is this a good, a bad or even a great film? So it would seem strange to suddenly decide to boycott a film because its victims were hit financially instead of physically. What would be refreshing in its honesty is if DiCaprio admitted that he wanted to make the movie because he recognised the humour and outlandish excitement in Belfort’s story, instead of arguing that it was an “indictment”.

Yet the fact is that increasingly films and TV dramas are being drawn from real life and viewers should be aware that this requires “adjustments” to be made. Over the past few months viewers have switched on in their millions to watch dramas based on the crimes of Lord Lucan and The Great Train Robbers, while in previous years there have been dramas based on the Moors Murders and Fred West.

The man behind many is Jeff Pope, the head of Factual Drama at ITV. This week it was announced that he is writing and producing a three-part crime drama titled The Widower and based on Malcolm Webster, who murdered his Scots wife, Claire Morris, by staging a fake car crash in Aberdeenshire in 1994, then attempted the same method with his second wife, Felicity Drumm, in New Zealand.

He was unsuccessful and fled back to Scotland where he came to the attention of Detective Inspector Charlie Henry, head of CID for what was then Argyll and Bute, who set about building a painstaking criminal case which eventually led to Webster’s successful conviction in 2011. He is now serving 30 years in a Scots prison.

People enjoy watching crimes when they happen to other people. We always have. In the 19th century, readers purchased newspapers in their millions to catch up on the latest murder, and George Orwell analysed the nation’s morbid interest in his famous essay: Decline of the English Murder.

Today we still read about them, only a few years later we can watch them condensed into a dramatic form. The Widower may enjoy an easier ride than The Wolf of Wall Street as the perpetrator, Malcolm Webster, will not benefit and the production team has secured the support of the family of his first victim and his second intended victim, as well as the officer who led the prosecution. Webster can now look forward to seeing himself portrayed by Reece Shearsmith. Or would he have preferred Leo?