Michael Amity holds the two Oscar nominated films under a different kind of spotlight.
Money makes life easier—at least that’s what the kids are taught—but we’re told something in the opening monologue of The Wolf of Wall Street that is potentially coconuts: that money makes life better. With sprinklings of drugs and hookers, we spend our next 3 hours pondering: If money could turn a normal kid into a monster, could it also do the opposite, turn roaches into kings?
Removing morality for a second, at the heart of a sale all that’s left is leverage. And in a negotiation between buyer and seller, everything rides on playing off emotions. To repeat that exchange, though, every day, carrying your livelihood’s dependence, without becoming evil—that the true test of modern, dark, capitalist leaders.
Greed is a pure intention; we can pretend it’s not, but nonetheless, the safe-players will all most likely end up on the losing end to the risk takers. Meanwhile, what’s at stake is more than money, its also dignity, a sense of self, the very core foundational ideas of who we are as people. They’re all gone, forfeited to rule breakers, and that is the true test of anyone who is not sure if they are a leader.
But who is the suspect? At the top everyone knows: behind every great fortune is a great crime, and those giant apes, banging on their chests, dominating the rest, look down at a baby without pity, as if resigning them to a lesser destiny. They don’t worry about choices made in the class-war; war is hell.
Seeds planted at the start make us think its worthwhile to play and participate so we can win. And so it goes, none want to be sheep, living amongst wolves and varmints. And as the corrupt system goes, so do we, aging down further into hellish traps.
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) learned one ominous secret on his first day at work, the one that schools forbade us from learning: that dead men tell no tales. Money dies when you lose it, but the fiction Belfort was selling kept it alive. Those deals he conjured would slide around on a floating scale of value. While at first it was a tool, fulfilling the needs of Everyman, soon it went crashing down, enclosing the walls around his victims, leaving every man but him a resounding failure for all to see, and the universal sadness resides in their asking, “Where’d I go wrong?” with a final thought. Money can be, as Belfort posits, the greatest drug of all, sweetly connecting power and happiness. But like any drug it can also be a mirage in the desert, denial in one’s blood, molesting their ego, begging like an addict in dejection, calling for ruin once again, “If my dream arrives.”
Belfort, never repentant, no appreciation for his limitations, is a maniacal cult leader and a natural typecast for the futurist icon. He’s all shell, no substance: a humanoid maestro who never realizes that he exemplifies the pitfalls of aspiration. As he goes, propelled by hope, so do we–that is our ecology, what comes of trying to be the purest, praying success will be self-defined. Knowing when to stop is perilous for a fire-breathing missionary without a care for himself or others, leapfrogging despair before the storm comes that will inevitably unravel our once favorable threads.
It should all be a valuable lesson, and it is, if upon rebuilding time, we take it there, to a better place where we find on our own worth. Leaving the ones breaking, this game is for single players, we each must answer the call to decide what belongs in our future.
Another film out now offers a hope for escaping the ruthless shell game depicted in Wolf’s egotistical roller coaster ride. That flick, a more reticent one, American Hustle, brings us another pariah-like, slick swindler, but with watching him, we manage to see a balance in that character type, as if those two protagonists were woven from the same strings.
Hustle, a brainy con-man flick, also centers on the over-the-top heartless lures of American business culture, but in it, the swindler (Christian Bale) makes us feel he has a heart, which adds to the drama, as he is taken along on a descending journey to escape his tangled web caused by him getting hoodwinked early by a Federal agent. Clearly, as the plot progresses, he knows everyone around him is blind to what’s happening, where its all going. His experience tells him what dangers lie ahead, yet he must maintain his heart and brains as internalized motivating essentials while hoping to save everyone, thinking, “if you only knew.”
Both films show us how success works in the unique, selfish light we Americans were raised in, with lying and collusion being mantras built to order and made to stay. In the end, both characters would face the day of reckoning with a knowledge that they depended ad nauseam on professional manipulation. The difference was Belfort couldn’t shed his skin again, his heart wasn’t in it.
About Michael Amity
Michael Amity is a native New Yorker, philosopher and entrepreneur. Acting with poetry in his heart, he looks for hidden, mystical or subtle connectors in everything. When not counting syllables, he goes by the Philosophy King and runs a meme-blog I'm Differrent to celebrate diversity. You can elect to Follow him on Twitter.