FIRST we had Gordon Gekko – now it’s time for the real thing. If the generational, iconic flick “Wall Street” was a fictional take on the culture of 1980s American capitalism, its 2014 cousin, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, is set to tell that story like it really is.
Whereas Gekko’s character, though based on a collection of real Wall Street traders, was a caricature of the archetypical 1980s banker, “The Wolf of Wall Street” has an altogether different agenda. For a start, it’s a true story, based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, the infamous New York stockbroker sentenced to 22 months in prison in 1998 for stock market manipulation and pennystock boiler room scams. The film is directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role (the fifth such collaboration between the two).
Although Belfort now makes a living by rather more licit means – he is an author and motivational speaker in Los Angeles – the story of how an avaricious man was allowed to thrive in a system that afforded him the chance to commit securities fraud and moneylaundering for so long is one that is likely to engage even those who perhaps have only a passing interest in the world of trading.
Belfort is now 51 and the picture of serenity – but in his pomp he was the epitome of City power. His rock’n’roll lifestyle of drink and drugs went hand-in-hand with the success of his firm Stratton Oakmont – which issued stocks of more than $1bn and employed more than 1000 brokers – before excess, not to mention the law, caught up with him. That led to his imprisonment and to the repayment of more than $110m to swindled shareholders.
For DiCaprio, playing a man of such greed was never less than a fascinating proposition. The 39-year-old, who was propelled to stardom by his role in 1998 blockbuster “Titanic”, is no stranger to demanding and controversial real-life roles – his stellar portfolio of work includes portraying FBI director J Edgar Hoover (in “J Edgar”), infamous conman Frank Abagnale (in “Catch Me If You Can”) and eccentric magnate Howard Hughes (in “The Aviator”). But, as a known philanthropist, his view of the world jars with those of many people in the City.
Right as “Titanic” was bringing audiences flocking to cinemas around the world, Belfort was being imprisoned – and DiCaprio believes the excesses that ended up putting the broker behind bars are nothing new.
“Well, let’s be clear, it’s a movie that explores greed and indulgence and the insatiable ability to consume without regard for anything else but your own lust,” he says. “It’s interesting subject matter for me, and very pertinent to something I am fascinated by – human nature. I keep talking about greed all the time, but the more I talk about it the more I realise that there’s an inherent survival characteristic for everything on earth to consume and survive.
“What is so fascinating about this is that we’re supposed to be an evolved species that is at least attempting to live harmoniously together and make the world a better place. But greed is incredibly prevalent, and just as rampant as it always was.”
So he wouldn’t say greed was a modern issue? “No. It happened before civilisation,” he laughs, “I’m not judging it – and please don’t think I am – but it’s an inherent characteristic of society.
“I did an environmental documentary called ‘The Eleventh Hour’, in which we interviewed a prominent scientist. He turned the whole thing round, and I was like, ‘Wow, I never thought that greed and opportunism are some of the key characteristics to life and survival’. Ultimately, there’s no organism that wouldn’t wipe out another just to be able to survive.”
As ever, DiCaprio prepared for the role with meticulous detail. That portrayal of real life and, with it, an intricate intensity of characterisation, has become something of a trademark for the California-born star.
“It wasn’t really until I looked back at the last three movies I’d done that I saw a really prevalent theme there,” he says. “I don’t ever question why I gravitate towards things, but obviously it was something that was percolating around me. Through those three characters, I realised: ‘Wow, I am playing incredibly powerful men that have a lust for wealth at different eras in American history.’
“It didn’t really occur to me, because I just sort of say, ‘I want to play this character, I have to do this,’ and I never questioned it. So when it came to ‘Gatsby’ [DiCaprio starred in the title role in the gaudy Baz Luhrmann adaptation of iconic F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel ‘The Great Gatsby’ in 2013], this was a guy who did it for love and created a fortune in the underworld. Now compare that to Belfort – this is a guy who, in the modern era, is doing the same thing and it’s all thematically linked with greed, so it’s prevalent in my mind.”
To build a greater understanding of both his subject and the financial district itself, DiCaprio went straight to Wall Street to get a handle on its culture and practices.
“I spent a long time on Wall Street and met a lot of these guys. What was funny, and so ironic, was that we were making a movie about the debauchery of Wall Street but 80 per cent of the guys I talked to said the reason they got into the world of finance was to try to be like Gordon Gekko in ‘Wall Street’. And I was like: ‘Well, wasn’t that a cautionary tale of what not to do? I don’t understand that’,” he laughs. “And they said: ‘No man, we wanted to be like him; we wanted that life.’ And so did Jordan Belfort. For some of these people, it seems to be like an addiction, like a drug. For a lot of these guys, it was like their cocaine – and they would never stop.”
But what of the film itself? There are many ways in which its subject matter could be broached, so how does DiCaprio assess it?
“I’d describe it as a dark comedy. It definitely has comedic elements but, when Martin Scorsese directs a movie, it’s not just one thing. I asked him about ‘Goodfellas’, which I think is one of everyone’s favourite movies, and he said: ‘I meant that to be a comedy.’ I said: ‘Really?’ And he said: ‘Yeah, I was surrounded by that my whole life, and it’s hilarious to me.’ As far as this movie goes, I keep describing it as a modern day ‘Caligula’ but full of unregulated debauchery and American history, although it could be global banking history.
“It’s a movie about the systematic shutdown of our economy as a result of Jordan Belfort.”
One problem DiCaprio couldn’t escape was the City gent preconception – the swirl of negative public opinion that surrounds bankers, brokers and any members of the financial sector. It is a problem the actor acknowledges, although he doesn’t believe the subject matter will have a negative effect on the film’s success. In fact, he sees the jaded perception of the financial world as a positive.
“Like I said, Wall Street is very tough subject matter to put in the title; people have a distaste for those in the world of finance and it’s not like you hear the words ‘Wall Street’ and will want to go rushing to the theatres. But ultimately, to me, it’s not necessarily about Wall Street – it’s about this corrupted version of the American dream, the global dream. It’s about the corruption of people who have these influences and who ultimately, at any cost, want to live that dream.”
Does DiCaprio sympathise with the man in the street, who sees the banking system as corrupt and out of control?
“I think I do, ultimately,” he admits. “Look at what has happened to our economy – everyone has the right and should speak about it openly, and this is what happens when, like I said before – this is a microcosm of a much bigger story. There are people out there, even now, who are pulling off much bigger heists and manipulations of our economy, and are getting away with a lot more. Belfort, ultimately, is a minnow. There
are whales out there who have decimated our economy for billions and billions of dollars.
“It’s an unregulated society and structure where people aren’t watched over, and don’t need to pay the price for their actions. And this is a cycle that I feel keeps repeating in this country and in others – you have to reinvent, so to speak, our entire financial institutions because there is one loophole and then everything gets funnelled into that, and people go overboard. It happened in the 1930s… it happened back then and it just happened recently. There needs to be a reset button.”
It seems DiCaprio’s mind is made up, but then he offers a closing gambit that reveals his now more nuanced perspective.
He says he enjoyed the company of Jordan Belfort when he met him while conducting his research, and that he thus became rather engaged with an industry that he wanted to dislike.
“I actually liked spending time in his world and with him, because he’s so candid,” DiCaprio explains. “Is he apologetic about his crimes? He’s apologetic in the sense that I think he regrets what he did, for sure. He
took advantage of a lot of people, and he’s sorry for the way he treated those he loved in his life, but I commend him for trying to do something positive with it now.
“And it’s easy to see how he ended up embracing the madness of the industry. I could smell the passion, the excitement and the thrill in my research. And it was addictive. I did respect that.”
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is in cinemas now.
A version of this article first appeared in “Square Mile” magazine, the leading luxury lifestyle publication for the City of London. See squaremile.com