Tucked behind the Goldman Sachs building at 200 West Street, the Regal Battery Park theater was a fitting venue for last night's free advanced screening of "The Wolf of Wall Street," Martin Scorsese's highly-anticipated biopic about '90s-era pump-and-dump charlatan Jordan Belfort. Belfort's decadence was disturbing, but equally disturbing was the finance-heavy audience's gleeful reaction to his behavior and legal wrongdoings.
Credit Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, who played Belfort, for keeping the high-octane, drug-filled movie entertaining for three hours (the longest Scorsese film by about 60 seconds). But my one major gripe was pretty simple: Jordan Belfort defrauded a lot of people—and by the nature of his penny stock transgressions, many low-income people—out of a ton of money. He then used that money, as one does, on cocaine, hookers, cars, and yachts. It may be great cinema to document his exploits, but there's a fine line between satirizing Wall Street's excess and celebrating Belfort's lifestyle.
Put simply, the film could have done a better job making Belfort look like a villain. Or maybe the film did do that, and we were just watching with the wrong crowd. There were a lot of finance pros there. The theater is in Manhattan's financial district and the movie has "Wall Street" in the name, after all. Plus you can actually see into Goldman's trading room floor from the escalator.
There's a lot of talk about how Wall Street has "changed" since the financial crisis. Compliance is up, bonuses are down, the holiday parties aren't as extravagant as they used to be. But you wouldn't necessarily know that from what these guys were cheering at. When Belfort—a drug addict who later attempts to sober up—rips up a couch cushion to get to his secret coke stash, there were cheers.
Then, intercut with Popeye eating spinach, the film shows Belfort irrevocably high on Quaaludes (or "ludes," a muscle relaxer) and dumps coke into his nose to remedy the situation—more cheers. The worst, though... [mild spoiler alert] was that at one point later in the movie, the feds get Belfort to wear a wire to implicate others at his firm. Meeting with his No. 2, Belfort slides over a piece of paper: "Don't incriminate yourself. I am wearing a wire." And the crowd goes wild. Don't rat! Stand by your firm!
Bankers: First of all, don't cheer in a movie. It's weird. You can laugh, but no cheering. Second, guffawing while Leo attempts to evade federal indictment doesn't exactly help America's perception of your societal value. Hopefully this kind of euphoria was confined to one boozy, Financial District pre-screening (Paramount gave us popcorn and martinis upon entrance), because it would be a real shame if Martin Scorsese just accidentally inspired the future Jordan Belforts of the world.