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Is unrestrained greed good? Nay, declares Martin Scorsese in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ his sprawling indictment of Wall Street and America

January 10, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 10, 2014

Let me tell you about a Martin Scorsese movie that I recently saw. The protagonist is an unscrupulous young white man who aspires to wealth and luxury. By associating himself with a gang of other similarly avaricious, unprincipled young men, the ambitious outsider achieves wild levels of success. The rewards include free-flowing money, drugs, sex and power. Those outside his circle sometimes pay a heavy price for the protagonist’s triumphs. After the group attracts the scrutiny of the authorities, they’re cleaved by internal divisions. Ultimately, the leading character is humbled, but he does not attain humility.

If this sounds familiar, there’s good reason for that. Squint at Scorsese’s late 2013 release, The Wolf of Wall Street, and one might easily mistake it for his 1990 mafia classic, Goodfellas. In a broader sense, it also matches the outsider-makes-good-before-getting-his-comeuppance template that Goodfellas shares with Scorsese’s 1995 drama, Casino, wherein a Philadelphia oddsmaker becomes a top Las Vegas power broker but is undone by greed, drugs, lust and politics. In all three films, the protagonist’s success is threatened by a profligate right-hand man.

Both Goodfellas and Casino are based on nonfiction books by Nicholas Pileggi. This time around, the source material is a memoir by arriviste financier Jordan Belfort; thugs, guns and violence are de-emphasized in favor of opulence and sex, but the parallels with Scorsese’s early works are unmistakable.

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