Does “The Wolf of Wall Street” Let Wall Street Off the Hook?

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A common site at Wall and Broad

A common site at Wall and Broad

For a movie that came out in theaters, literally, yesterday, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is already the topic of several controversies. There’s the part where it wasn’t shown to critics in time to qualify for most critical awards. The angry pearl-clutching on the part of many older members of the Academy, who are outraged at such raunch. And the concerns raised by some who are afraid that the movie is valorizing subject Jordan Belfort, who by most indications is an unrepentant criminal and sociopath.

Now there’s another criticism of the film: That “The Wolf of Wall Street”‘s critique isn’t specifically of Wall Street, and isn’t critical of Wall Street for the right reasons.

Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, a very contrarian writer for that very contrarian website, published this provocative take, arguing that while Scorsese’s film exposes the greed and amorality of financial types, it’s not really the same greed and amorality that crashed the economy in 2008, and besides- Belfort’s operation was neither physically located on Wall Street nor a part of the established financial sector commonly referred to as “Wall Street”:

 For a film with this title and subject matter, being released in the year 2013, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have come up with a movie that has essentially nothing to do with today’s problems… I think that if you’re a major Wall Street executive or work for one of the bank lobbies you have to be very happy with this film. Indeed, very happy in general that Hollywood keeps churning out stories with this kind of focus. Everything Stratton Oakmont is shown as doing has been illegal for years and the enforcement, though imperfect, is real… These guys in this movie aren’t real Wall Street guys. They have tacky outer-boroughs accents and no education. The idea that the FBI and the SEC need to do a more rigorous job of keeping sleazy drug-addled deviants from posing as real stock brokers and investment advisers is the most comfortable possible reform proposal for the real Titans of Finance, most of whom are perfectly respectable people with respectable accents and real degrees from prestigious universities. You have to rein them in not with exciting wiretaps but with boring regulations on leverage and liquidity.

While I’m not generally a fan of criticizing a movie because it’s not about what I wish it was about, Yglesias has a point. The film never even establishes that Belfort’s firm is located not on Wall Street but on Long Island. However, the early, key scene with Matthew McConaughey as a Wall Street type implies that ripping off clients is the way things are done on the Street, and that’s what informed Belfort and Stratton Oakmont.

If “Wolf” is a hit, I’m expecting we’ll see more movies about real-life financial malfeasance, and there are plenty of real-life examples available. And besides, who says the people on the Street who actually did cause the 2008 crash weren’t “sleazy drug-addled deviants”?

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