For several months, before I began to write film criticism professionally, I worked in sales — more specifically in what’s known as ‘SMB sales’, or sales to small and medium-sized businesses. I was employed by a franchisee of a national telecommunications company, who furnished me with a modest salary and a tiny office in a bad part of town, and every morning, impeccably dressed in a two thousand dollar charcoal suit, I drove through the city’s densely webbed industrial districts and knocked on doors. In the afternoons I would return to the office, thumb through a phonebook-sized directory of local businesses, and make cold calls through to the end of the day. Sometimes I could convince a secretary to transfer me to someone with more authority. Occasionally I could convince this person to listen to my well-honed pitch. Once I even closed a deal, but I had the distinct impression that it had more to do with the sympathy of the client than with my persuasiveness — I’d somehow willed enough pity that it had been easier for them to agree than to turn me down.
My tenure as a salesman was therefore quite brief. Now, I consider myself, if you’ll permit the indulgence, a relatively confident and articulate person, and given the monthly incentives and commissions offered by my employer, I was certainly motivated to sell. But there is another, less otherwise admirable quality required of successful salesmen, one which yields the crucial difference between rejection and a signature on the dotted line: you need to be totally, utterly shameless. You need to face the sneering contempt of the prospective client, who loathes your very presence in his office or at the other end of the line, and you need to not mind. You need to accept that literally every single person you talk to in a day will regard you as an abjectly terrible person and you need to sell them something anyway — you need to convince them that you are a good person, a person capable of and eager to save them a lot of money, and you need to do this by believing it yourself. Several of my colleagues lived and behaved this way. They could make fifty cold calls in an hour and sounded like they were slinging used cars. They were also tremendously successful — one claimed he’d made upwards of $90,000 in a month — and, far from insufferable, were for the most part perfectly pleasant people. But I, and probably you, could never be one of them.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is about these people. Its heroes, such as they are, work as stockbrokers, duping the wealthy into worthless investments while reaping the lucrative commissions. Their exploits represent an extreme case. But the film’s subject is broader: it is about sales — about sales culture, sales tactics, sales sensibilities, sales targets. It’s about how a person can pick up the phone and convince a stranger to give them their money for almost no reason and after only the slightest gesture of manipulation. It’s about how we’re all so helplessly drawn to the promise of financial windfall that we find self-styled prophets like Jordan Belfort irresistible. “The Wolf of Wall Street” explores the architecture of the American finance industry at its highest level — the milieu is the top-floor firm and the boiler-room sales floor that keeps it running — but it’s less concerned with the transgressions of exceptional money-launderers than it is with the more permissible breaches of trust on which the entire enterprise was founded. This is what grounds the film in the real world — what connects it, urgently and provocatively, with the mundane and the everyday. What’s important isn’t the inflated stock price or the gouging of gullible millionaires. What’s important is the sale.
Martin Scorsese has already been criticized, most recently by Slate’s business and economics correspondent Matthew Yglesias, for eliding “the real scandal” of unscrupulous (though still legal) investment advice, as well as for variously glamorizing, indulging, and even lionizing the behaviour of Belfort, his high-rolling, model-f**king, quaalude-popping lead. Yglesias is right that Belfort is an extraordinary case, and that the daily misdeeds of real Wall Street executives are more insidious. But what he misunderstands is that Scorsese has made a movie precisely about their wrongdoings, and the wrongdoings of anybody inclined to sell — and he’s illustrated the reasons they continue to get away with it. A lot of movies proceeding from a similar premise follow what you might call an ‘American Dream narrative’: they find their hero in shambles, follow him as he pursues fame and fortune, carry him through to a delirious peak, and then end with a quick nosedive into a moralizing crash and burn. Success is meted out, in such films, as a kind of Icarian compromise, permitting zealous men and women to reach the heights of their fantasies only so that they may ultimately fall.
These films tend to tell us something like, “immense wealth entrains greed / corruption / immorality”, which I can’t imagine still comes as a surprise to American moviegoers in 2013. From the outset, “The Wolf of Wall Street” seems set to follow a similar trajectory, tracing the rise of its upstart anti-hero toward what we can only assume will be a terrible fall — an implosion of addiction, heartbreak, and financial ruin, like “Scarface” without the tommy-gun. But Scorsese, along with screenwriter Terence Winter, has devised a more unusual arc for their protagonist: after two and a half hours of indefatigable high spirits, the film delivers a fall that registers as barely a hiccup. The promised federal reckoning is softened considerably in recognition of Belfort’s cooperation. A catastrophe on board his yacht is rendered as a wild fantasy, replete with explosions and titanic waves (an event he escapes unscathed). His drug use settles down with very little consequence. His empire crumbles, but is supplanted, after a brief prison sojourn, with a new, perfectly legal venture. Even after losing everything, Jordan Belfort still wins: in the end we find him delivering a motivational lecture to a large, attentive audience in New Zealand, eager to learn from the pro. But the lesson Belfort offers isn’t a moral one — his only atonement is for the high-profile crimes, which were always incidental anyway. He’s there to do what he does best: to practice the power of sales.
Scorsese, meanwhile, strives to reflect the manic vigor of Belfort’s salesmanship in his filmmaking, and the result is a farce of wild comic invention — it’s an epic cranked into overdrive, and, not insignificantly, a film without shame. This tendency has had a strange effect on its reception: many critics are under the impression that the film is playing this material straight, and have therefore sought to take Scorsese to task for his poor judgment. Perhaps the strangest review arrives from David Denby, who writes in the New Yorker that Scorsese’s biggest mistake “was to take the claims of Jordan Belfort at face value” — I suppose like, say, the moment when his car changes from red to white after he insists that it be that way, or when his retelling of a safe drive home under the influence is undermined by a shock cut to a totalled Lamborghini. Later, Denby claims that the film is “meant to be an expose of disgusting, immoral, corrupt, obscene behavior, but it’s made in such an exultant style that it becomes an example of disgusting, obscene filmmaking.” Why, yes — in fact you might even say that’s the point of the film. We’re sold a bill of goods in the same way Belfort’s clients are. Funny how that works.
From the great many volumes of motivational literature I was encouraged to read by my former employers, I inherited one salient fact about sales: everybody wants to be sold to. If they didn’t want to be sold to, they wouldn’t buy — but they do. We all do. The reason sales is exploitative is because it seizes upon our desires and uses them to take our money. The reason we continue to let it happen, and the reason salesmen like Belfort continue to thrive, is because we all kind of like it. At the end of “The Wolf of Wall Street”, as Belfort is orating to the crowd, he walks up to each attendee and tells them to sell him his pen. We see them struggle to find the words: “it’s a nice pen”, “you can do a lot of things with this pen.” These people aren’t salesmen — like me, they aren’t built to think that way. But they are built to buy. They paid to see Belfort speaking. He sold them himself for the price of admission. And us? When the movie is over, look in your pocket: Scorsese sold you a ticket. Belfort wins again.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" opens in theaters on December 25th.