Cocaine, Hookers, & Money: The New Cinema of Excess is Unapologetic

"And the moral to the story is…"

Was what? Don't disobey your parents. Don't be selfish. Don't lie, cheat, steal, or give in to a host of other vices that can hurt you or other people. Right. Good. These standard lessons in ethics are to cinema what apple pie is to America; it seems as though you can't watch a movie without learning a little about how one should or shouldn't behave as a member of the human race.

However, upon the release of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street it seemed as though something had changed. It was all over the news, in publications, and in the mouths of moviegoers how excessive the film was -- how it glorified the indulgent and lecherous life of Jordan Belfort. But did it? If it didn't, why did so many people think it did, and if it didn't -- why do we care?

The Nerdwriter digs into this topic in an excellent video essay, which explains the characteristics and function of the "new cinema of excess".

I visited my dad after I saw The Wolf of Wall Street. He had seen it a few days prior, so when I walked through the door, I knew that we'd have a lot to talk about regarding the film. He asked me, "Did you like it?" And I said, "Yeah, it was good." My typical nonchalance. However, my dad's face changed -- a visage I hadn't seen since my teenage years: complete and utter disgust at debauchery. (I got caught drunk at a party once, okay?)

"It was sick," was all he said.

I've been thinking about it ever since -- why do so many people disapprove of The Wolf of Wall Street? Was it the drug use? The strippers? The philandering? I'll admit, watching Leo DiCaprio snort cocaine from a woman's buttcrack wasn't pretty, but I've certainly seen worse. But I think the points brought up by The Nerdwriter and Izzy Black in the essay "The Wolf of Wall Street and The New Cinema of Excess" really nail it on the head. From Black's essay:

The New Cinema of Excess is a descriptive project rather than a normative one, then. It’s a heavily stylized cinema of psychological transparency, description, and understanding. These films opt to imaginatively present the psychology of ideology rather than funnel in a more deceptive ideology through moralizing.

Spring Breakers

In other words, Scorsese wasn't looking to tell you how to feel about Jordan Belfort and his antics. He was looking to show you what they were and let you make up your own mind. Many have come out to say that the film somehow "normalizes" or "glorifies" this behavior of excess, but does it, or does it simply show us something we might find overindulgent and "bad for society" (think of the children!), not telling us, "So, the moral of the story is don't cheat people out of millions, take quaaludes and drive, or have orgies on planes?" There is no moral to the story of Jordan Belfort, because, really, there is no moral at the end of most real life stories of corruption and greed -- there's just more of it. More money. More desire. More excess.

However, that doesn't mean there's nothing to learn or take away from these films. Black wraps up perfectly how we might think about this "new cinema of excess":

The hope is that by displaying a world where characters learn nothing, we learn something, and while that something may be cynical and depressing, it’s in any case something that’s hopefully honest.

And the moral to the story is -- not all films have to have a moral to the story to convey a positive message.     

Your Comment

28 Comments

A great article.
I found this movie refreshing for it's unopologetic display of this mans life without the heavy over moralizing of it's plot.
I liked it also because I knew people were going to have a problem with it. We need more films that take risk dividing people.

April 3, 2015 at 7:28PM

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Vincent Gortho
none
1128

Yes ,because there is not enough Division already

April 6, 2015 at 7:13AM

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There isn't. The majority of films- especially mainstream films, are movies that try to unify people with the warmth of morality tales. Tales about family and love etc...

April 6, 2015 at 7:31PM

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Vincent Gortho
none
1128

Morality matters.

April 3, 2015 at 9:48PM

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Michael Schmucker
Producer, Cinematographer, Animator
263

for some.

April 3, 2015 at 11:05PM

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Vincent Gortho
none
1128

clearly not FOR YOU

April 4, 2015 at 4:55AM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
1681

I bring my set of morals to every movie I see.
what I don't like is having them regurgitated to me in sententious pontification how I should embrace all forms of life.
No matter if the characters are good or bad, let them be who they are without giving the feeling the writer is trying t manipulate them to standard issue likability that often falls flat.

April 5, 2015 at 12:46PM

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Vincent Gortho
none
1128

...But do you have to like the main characters in order to like the film ?

I see this all the time where people won't like a TV series because they don't like the behaviour of the lead characters. ( most of the time people want characters that they can hero worship )

I loved the portrayal of Dexter Morgan from the series "Dexter", and the same goes for Walter White from "Breaking Bad", but I would say that both of these characters are essentially morally bankrupt with the things that they are willing to do to get what they want.

April 4, 2015 at 8:05AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33604

Great article, the point about displaying a world where characters learn nothing is totally worth making. Director Sam Peckinpah used to come for this flak all the time for being "misogynist" (eg Straw Dogs) or "glorifying violence" (eg Wild Bunch), and perhaps more shocking for being far longer ago when many boundaries had not been crossed, yet he was coming from a different place too and allowing the viewer to think about it and take it however.

I think many people do have a sense of morality, which I think is a very good thing, but the world can appear awfully amoral in reality, and films that reflect that in context are good.

April 4, 2015 at 6:48AM

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Saied M.
1412

I hated "The Wolf of Wall Street" because it's B grade Scorsese. The film runs way too long. ( I was dying to get out of the movie theatre because I was bored by the 90 minute mark ) And the film has no perspective on it's subject matter, it simply presents vignettes from Jason Belfort's life, but provides no insight into what made the man what he became, despite having non-stop narration from the Belfort character all the way through the film. I came out of the theatre feeling I had learned absolutely nothing about Belfort or his effect on the world.

I felt the same way when I watched Martin Scorsese's "Hugo", where so much work was spent on the 3D effects, but next to nothing was spent on story or character development. I could not give a sh*t what happened to the characters by the end of the movie because again I was bored out of my head.

Scorsese has made some amazing movies, but boy do his duds suck big time.

"Cape Fear" / "Good Fellas" / "The Grifters" were the last Scorsese films that I would sit through two showings back to back, because the films were brilliant pieces of cinema.

April 4, 2015 at 7:32AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33604

Grifters is Frears.

April 4, 2015 at 7:56AM

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Daniel Thoen
ne'er-do-well
361

Yes, thanks. Scorsese was a producer on Grifters. ( don't know why I thought he directed it ) Still another great film.

April 4, 2015 at 8:10AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33604

Yes, I like it a lot.

April 4, 2015 at 8:34AM

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Daniel Thoen
ne'er-do-well
361

Goodfellas is just Wolf of Wall street light.

April 4, 2015 at 12:04PM, Edited April 4, 12:04PM

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Joe Sand
Actor, Writer, Director, Editor
373

...I actually felt that "Wolf of Wall Street" was bad B grade "Goodfellas", mainly because it has none of the visual style or story depth that "Goodfellas" brought to the screen.

April 4, 2015 at 5:10PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33604

I did not dig Wolf of Wall Street. It just didn't work for me. I agree with those who complain it was overly long. I got bored with it, and with Leo (every Leo movie). I didn't find the multi-minute drug lambo wreck entertaining, just tedious. If that was the actual intention of the filmmaker then should I congratulate for trolling so well?

Moral to the story. The lesson. Could the movie been better if it had a more recognizable one? Like "where are the customers yachts"? He seemingly sold people dreams dishonestly. A predator. Compare with the lowlifes in Goodfellas. Seems like fun but then things get deadly serious. Wolf never goes there. You don't see the lives he/they ruined. Is having no comment on that an endorsement? Maybe not, but then what is it? If I want to see excessive excess I'll watch Michael Bay.

April 4, 2015 at 8:34AM

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Daniel Thoen
ne'er-do-well
361

I have a question for those who liked Wolf. What in the movie appealed to you? Made it special, good enough to be considered good. Could be anything. Living the dream of easy money/hookers/blow (vicariously), or flipping the bird to the world (vicariously), or editing some part of the directing or acting (though that one would beggar belief from me). Just something.

And I feel a need to argue with the video/essay. Concerning from 6 minutes in when the voice says words concerning a viewers disgust/indignation inflicted on him (Belfort) "is less a righteous act than a self-righteous delusion". I say BS. I never screwed anybody out of millions, much less a dollar. I think I'm safe to be disgusted with thieves.

April 4, 2015 at 9:09AM

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Daniel Thoen
ne'er-do-well
361

Of course, one doesn't have to like the main character to like a film.

April 6, 2015 at 9:57AM

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Was at a friend's house and they had this movie on. I came in maybe 10 minutes into it. It was stupid to me but I kept watching because, you know, Martin Scorsese, blah blah blah, I thought it'd be good to finally see some of his work.

Then I heard the Forrest Gump sountrack playing from the other room.

Needless to say, I left and watched Forrest Gump instead.

April 4, 2015 at 9:30AM

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Torsten Pearson
Writer-Director-Editor
422

Having lived through the 80's and 2008 here is my take on it.

At the end of Wall Street Gordon Gekko goes to jail and there are serious consequences for actions taken by these characters. Charlie Sheen sees the wrong of his ways, has a real change of heart and attempts to change his life. Gekko is something of an anomaly in a world that still has some moral boundaries and something of a concience.

At the end of Wolf of Wall Street Belfort goes to jail, but it's more of a resort and a few years later we see him back at his roots doing what he does best. There is no sign of remorse for his actions, no great moral transformation. He had simply been outsmarted and caught, but he doesn't appear to have changed much as a person. He looks like he'll just keep doing as much as he can get away with.

In the 80's people like Michael Milkin went to jail for their actions and paid a very high price. Things like the S&L scandal had real consequences for a lot of people.

In 2008 Wall Street nearly destroyed the world economy and cost millions of people their jobs and savings. Not a single person involved in that fiasco went to jail and instead of facing ruin they were bailed out by the tax payers to the tune of a trillion dollars. Everyone on Wall Street got a raise and nothing changed, as we head for the next meltdown.

To my eyes WOWS merely reflects the sociopathic and narcissitic state of the world of finance and the 1% in general. Do what you want, screw over the 'muppets' and fear no consequences. If you have enough money and power you are above the law and untouchable. There is no morality left in the world of high finance and the film reflects that reality. If Gekko was an anomaly in his time, Belford is the new normal. To me WOWS is a mirror being held up to us. Those who are in on the joke laugh to themselves and are flattered. The rest of us appear to be too stupid to realize that the joke is on us.

April 4, 2015 at 10:46AM

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There is plainly a moral element to the film: it's morality from the viewpoint of the villain. To those horrified by this: is your own morality is so tenuous that you cannot stand to see such a thing?

I completely understand criticizing the film on other levels, but for not teaching wholesome morals from the viewpoint of a boy scout? Get outta here.

April 4, 2015 at 9:45AM

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I think the end of The Wolf of Wallstreet meant something, especially since the real Jordan Belfort introduces Leo at the end, saying, "This is one of the baddest mother fuckers I have ever met. Please welcome, Jordan Belfort!" Emphasis on bad. I think Scorsese is trying to tell you the whole time how bad Jordan is morally.

The final scene even shows how he is still selling to poor saps. It gives you only this very moment to make two choices in morality:

A.) He is fooling new farm animals, so what is the harm. If they are too slow, or too stupid to realize the danger of 'Get Rich Quick', then they had it coming.

B.) Wow, taking advantage of people in dire times is a very terrible thing to do. Even as Jordan says early on in the film, "But if we can make money for both our client and ourselves, it is advantageous to all parties..."

If you still don't believe me, Google "Jordan Belfort 60 Minutes Interview" and see for yourself. The real Jordan Belfort being asked hard hitting questions shows his true face.

April 4, 2015 at 2:08PM, Edited April 4, 2:08PM

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Manny Villanueva
Cinematographer
149

And when it gets down to the very end these So called "Bad Asses" who are so worshiped nowadays will learn the "Final Truth". No matter How Badass or how many of the "Farm Animals" they destroyed during their so-called Career - they will discover ,they don't get one Thin Dime of it ,Cause they are gone ,just like all the other Lemmings. And that gives Great Comfort in the face of their "Smug Baddassery".
And even though I don't see how it is possible there is anyone sitting in Judgement - I Sure HOPE there is. Cause Boy does He & many of us deserve it !

April 6, 2015 at 7:27AM

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Great article but I noticed a small error

He wasn't snorting the cocaine off her butt, he was blowing the cocaine in her butt

lol

April 5, 2015 at 9:41AM

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Adeel Kazim
Creative Director
113

"how it glorified the indulgent and lecherous life of Jordan Belfort."

Well, to expand on your point, it takes a special kind of dumb shit asshole to believe that movie was glorifying the main character.

To be sure, there are lots of dumb shit assholes in the world, but it seemed obvious that the Jordan Belfort was an unreliable narrator as well as someone to despise and/or maybe pity.

Loads of moral to the story. It's not easy to miss if one stops to actually think about what's happening on the screen.

April 6, 2015 at 8:50AM

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"You know you've made great cinema when half hates it and half loves it"
Nicolas Winding Refn

Cinema should affect the viewer and by this it causes an effect of thinking.

April 6, 2015 at 9:33AM

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Enrique Godinez
Director/Producer/Actor
451

The film would of worked if they didnt get leonardo dicaprio to play the protagonist. It's contrary to the few ideas I could gleam from it. In reality these people are not likeable, charasmatic nor attractive. Yet they chose someone who is all of these things to sell cinema tickets.

The sad truth is, this piece of fiction glorified a specific way of life to the majority of people who arent film studies critics. (ie the audience) Which in the end made the world a slightly worse place to live in. The very antithesis of film making or at least ones I respect.

April 6, 2015 at 12:51PM

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Will Poole
Director/Producer/Writer
184

Here's my pet theory about Wolf of Wall Street.

I'm probably totally making this up--I'd have to do a side by side comparison--but I was struck by how similar in structure the it was was to Goodfellas. The use of VO monologue, the tone of the VO, the beginning, the ending ("just some schmuck," eating noodles with ketchup, or selling pens), all the craziness in between, made it seem like a sort of "hidden sequel" to that movie--as if to say that the people in THIS movie were even bigger and badder gangsters, the worst of all time. And to me that made this movie even more relevant to recent events.

April 6, 2015 at 4:52PM, Edited April 6, 4:52PM

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Justin Kuhn
Director of Photography
90