Martin Scorsese and The American Dream
(Spoilers ahead for The Wolf of Wall Street).
The other day, I was looking at reviews of The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that I love a lot. Upon noticing a lot of negative comments I decided to rewatch it and watching it reminded me of why I loved that film so much; not because of how the film manages to spill excess into every scene, but because of how in the midst of it all, a message lies hidden. The same message that Martin Scorsese has always tried to illustrate throughout his filmography.
Scorsese loves to show the downfall of the Man in the high castle. Be it Goodfellas, Raging Bull or The Aviator, and this 3-hour debauchery act that I’ll be focusing on primarily, Scorsese focuses quite a lot on male ego. What ties his stories together is how his characters’ life choices are influenced by their dreamland. In other words, the protagonists in all of his movies and shows wanted to live the American Dream.
America has always been seen as a land of opportunity. Throughout the history of the USA, one can observe immigrants from various European countries finding a place in this glorious nation to make a living. It continues even today, as seen in students coming from all over the world to America to study or in Silicon Valley, where a sizeable percentage of the workforce is of quasi-American heritage, that too only by a generation or so. The immigrants’ aim to get a coveted degree, a top job at a quant firm or under a tech mogul, or to kickstart their venture into a high-life which they always wanted. Microsoft is headed by an Indian today, Facebook was founded by multiple Jewish-Americans with other mixed heritages, and these are just the biggest examples in a vast sea of such cases.
Here’s the kicker: America hasn’t necessarily been kind to a lot of outsiders. The cases in the limelight were stories of success that create a narrative that you could be anyone, you could be dirt poor, but you’ll always find a way to make something out of the land of the brave and the free. But in reality, one’s likelihood to succeed is rigged by factors such as race and appearance.
In the early 20th century, there was mass immigration of Italians to America. Many of them were very poor and lived in neighbourhoods characterised by poverty. Gradually, they grew out of it but, initially, life was rather too hard. They were involved in low-paying blue-collar jobs, had difficulty adjusting to their surroundings as they faced issues like the inability to speak English and considerable discrimination during World War II by the US government.
In the face of such adversity, the definition of the American Dream had become slightly skewed. It became an end in itself and the means to attain it was left open to a fair extent. This is where my example of Italian-Americans comes in (I’m well aware that this could be advancing a stereotypical narrative about them which is not my intention, but nonetheless, it surely is a sociological factor). In Italy, the institution of family was very important, to the extent that they would do anything to protect and advance the interests of their own kind. Italian-Americans organized themselves in places like New York, and created communities around them where they had control over the socio-economic conditions of their people.
This particular example of Italian-Americans is pertinent because of Scorsese’s focus on it. Goodfellas is a movie about how Italian gangsters in New York made their profession look cool and aspirational around their neighbourhood; their display of power enticed anybody who wanted to make the American Dream a reality. The idea of a family also becomes important here; Henry Hill had said that being an Italian mobster was better than being the President of the United States of America because of how relaxed these mobsters are. They have shady but steady sources of income, and no one to trouble them. The reason I can see behind this is that the Italian mobster feels no responsibility towards others. With this, the idea of the American Dream shifted from making use of the opportunity to succeed in the land of the American Dream without responsibility towards anyone or anything at all, at least for those who feel the need to resort to illegitimate means, even if in limited quantities.
The Wolf of Wall Street exemplifies that philosophy to perfection. Leading a normal life is a frustrating ordeal for Jordan Belfort. It all begins with one morally ambiguous choice. Jordan Belfort started selling stocks of companies that were not financially sound enough to get themselves listed on a legitimate stock exchange. He overlooked the fact that consumers might be adversely affected by such a deal with the misguided assurance that every company makes profits in the long run! Belfort has sex with everyone but his wife. She won’t find out, problem sorted! Goodfellas advances its story in the same vein; let’s bribe the cops, so everyone is happy. People get what they want, if only they put in the ‘effort’ to acquire it. So, everything could be hacked. But all of it becomes a problem when you want more, or when you find the need to sustain that lifestyle. You get sucked in, and you can’t find a way out. Stockbroking was a highly focused job that requires one to remain calm at all times. Substance usage provided that enhanced ability. Promiscuous sex provided the relief after. Home life provided the anxiety.
In The Wolf of Wall Street, this conception of the American Dream was most magnified when money-crazed kids read a Forbes piece that was actually critical of Jordan Belfort and decided to join his firm, Stratton Oakmont. Drugs, women, capital, a need for the high life. It was everything that an average American male needed; a break from the monotony of merely existing and working an unexciting job to feel larger than life. The middle-class could now profit off of the impulsiveness of the 1%, which was what Leonardo DiCaprio’s character initially set out to do. In part, this obsession can be attributed to the huge amounts of investment flowing through the economy, and mass media like the Michael Douglas-starrer Wall Street glorifying the “greed is good” image. With corporate raiders gaining infamy on the scene, the market being generally bullish, and huge leveraged buyouts being made (case in point being RJR Nabisco), Wall Street was a party. What is more interesting is that you could be a college dropout, an illiterate beggar, and Wall Street will still let you make your own fortune. That was where the appeal lay; selling is an art that can be learned irrespective of where you are in life. It primarily became a game of convincing American citizens that they wanted to shift their capital elsewhere, without holding any responsibility for their investments in the future. And why not this game? It was a comparatively easy and a quick way to make money. “Sell me a pen” became quotable as a line later on, because it was an exhibition of the idea that doing this much was enough to signify one’s potential for success, the main determinant of which was wealth. The product was not necessarily the seller’s own, he/she was just a middleman who won a fat commission on each sale. No responsibility, no accountability.
He did not just have this art of selling people things they didn’t want. What Jordan Belfort was most successful at was selling the perfect life to his employees. In the scene where he makes the motivational speech before the Steve Madden IPO, he draws a contrast between the women that men desire (“with big voluptuous tits”), and the women that are “disgusting wildebeests with three days of razor stubble”. That was his best sale ever, not the penny stocks that were essentially scams. What Scorsese really wanted to show here was how toxic masculinity began to shape the American Dream, mainly by saying that money can buy everything, including your happiness. One may argue that Belfort knew that it was all a crime, so he could have backed out by striking a deal with the FBI when they offered him a back door. But no, he felt too attached to this baby of his; this company that he had started from scratch after a disastrous stock market crash had left him unemployed. A parallel to this could be how attached Breaking Bad’s Walter White felt for his Baby Blue - his meth empire.
The Departed contains streaks of this American Dream. The opening lines of Jack Nicholson’s crazed, senile Irish gangster character says that he wants his environment to be a product of him, and not the other way round. He criticises the Afro-American community, calling them the N-word, saying that they were where they were because they could never “take it”. Nobody would give it to them. This idea of carving out your own environment to survive, no matter how illegitimate, defined the American Dream as presented in Scorsese’s films. It is safe to say that as the son of Americans with Italian heritage himself, he has seen the dream suck people into an abyss. This is not to say he doesn’t thank America for being so kind to him; Gangs of New York was a celebration of that. However, the thought of taking matters into one’s own hands became such an obsession for Americans that it eventually led to the downfall of prominent, wealthy people. They may have started from the bottom, but they definitely forgot their roots because that was always their intention. No one wants to remember painful beginnings.
Martin Scorsese has always evoked extreme reactions from his viewers. The surface viewer might just think that The Wolf of Wall Street was a 3-hour grossed-out porno-comedy without any message. That person misses a lot of the important shots that convey a deeper meaning, like that of the federal agent tasked with bringing Belfort to justice or shots of dull-faced middle-class people in a metro train. According to the film, the federal agent wanted to be a broker sometime in the past. And despite nailing such a huge arrest, he felt empty inside. He could never live the life Belfort did, even when he had the choice to. All it remained for him was a dream.
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