The Wolf of Wall Street gives an inside look of the life of Jordan Belfort. Jordan Belfort started from nothing to create a multi-billion dollar financial institution. Along the ride, he created a rowdy culture at his company that would push moral limitations each day. During this paper, I look to evaluate the dehumanization of the disabled, sexual objectification of females, the role of masculinity in the workplace, and how the desire for money influences individuals moral principles.
Jordan Belfort was raised in a struggling middle-class family in Queens by two accountants. From the movie, we know that this played a pivotal role in Jordan’s development and his aspirations for his life. As a child, Jordan witnessed his parents struggling to pay bills and the burden that being financially unstable played in their lives. Belfort was a naturally gifted at the art of sales. As a teenager, he went door-to-door and would sell 5,000 pounds of meat and fish a week in Long Island. Following college, Jordan went to the one place that was as money-hungry as him, Wall Street.
From the moment Jordan walks into the firm, he is met by the masculine and money-hungry environment of Wall Street. Jordan meets his boss upon entering the firm and told immediately, “You are lower than pond scum. Do you understand that? You’re pond scum.” Motivated to do whatever it takes to succeed, Jordan acts obliged and agrees to the boss’s statement that he is, in fact, pond scum. The boss proceeds to walk Jordan to his desk, and tells Jordan his job is to, “Smile and dial and do not pick up your fucking head until 1 o’clock.” Jordan is entering the firm at the lowest level. In order to become a stockbroker, he must pass his Series 7 certificate. Until then, his role is to call on over 500 people a day and try to get them interested in the firm. Jordan sits down at his desk with his boss standing over him and takes in the ferocious environment of the firm as men (no women traders shown) scream in their phones to make sales. He recalls being amazed at how the workers spoke to one another and their clients. During this brief moment of soaking in the firms environment, we hear conversations of traders yelling, “Yeah, Fuckface. Look at where the stocks at you dumbfuck!” and “We don’t give two shits about how technology works because all we care about is getting fucking rich.” Before walking away from Jordan’s desk, the boss tells Jordan, “Last year, I made $300,000 and your other boss made over a million dollars.” He sat in complete disbelief thinking of how amazing it be to make $1 million in a year. Jordan would soon meet Mark Hanna, who was Jordan’s other boss that made over a million dollars last year. Mark took a quick liking to Jordan, and becomes a friend and mentor to him from the beginning of his employment. On Jordan’s first day on the job, Mark invites Jordan to lunch at a fancy restaurant in Manhattan. Upon sitting down for lunch, Jordan is introduced to the extravagant behaviors of Wall Street as Mark casually snorts cocaine in the middle of the restaurant, while ordering drink after drink. Jordan is portrayed in this scene as being an innocent young man, and seems to be slightly overwhelmed by the situation. In efforts to make a good first impression, Jordan declines drinking, despite Mark desires of “drinking until they pass the fuck out”, and thanks Mark repeatedly for the opportunity and asks professional questions about the industry. Mark seems to prefer to talk more about degenerate topics, like doing cocaine or having sex with call girls. Meanwhile, Jordan continues to ask questions about the markets throughout lunch. At one point, Mark laughs off a question and tells Jordan that, “No one knows on Wall Street whether a stock is going to go up or down.” He continues to describe the market to Jordan as a fugazi (fake or phony) and says, “We don’t create shit. We don’t build shit.” Nevertheless, he is saying there is no way of picking the perfect stock for your client, and the most important thing is to make a sale so that you create money for yourself and the firm.
By the age of 25, Jordan Belfort had passed his Series 7 exam and promoted at L.F. Rothschild to a stockbroker. On October 19, 1987, Jordan’s first day as stockbroker, the stock market collapsed nearly 22% in a single day. This day, Black Monday, was the biggest collapse since 1929. L.F. Rothschild, a leading financial institution since 1899, closed its doors following Black Monday. Desperate to find a job as stock trader, Belfort found an opportunity at a sketchy penny stockbroker firm. Penny stocks are companies who cannot be listed on the NASDAQ (because they are too small) and trade for under $1 a share. Belfort, in disbelief people would be foolish enough to invest in these companies, asks a worker, “Who buys this garbage?” The man responded, “Shmucks like postman and plumbers.” It was apparent that the company was intentionally selling a worthless “companies” to hardworking middle class families as a ‘get rich quick’ scheme. Belfort was convinced to take the job due to the exponentially higher commission in penny-stocks compared to blue-chip stocks (large companies that are typically safe investments like Disney and IBM). Unlike his previous job where he would get 1% commission on a sale, with penny stocks Jordan would make 50% commission on a given trade. The environment of L.F. Rothschild and the Investors Center was significantly different. At L.F. Rothschild, the environment was cutthroat with macho-men traders willing to do anything to make a sale. These traders were extremely well dressed and spoken (minus their vulgar language). Their job was to persuade high net worth individuals and institutions to invest and grow their portfolio. However, at the Investor Center, the employees had the appearance of a sleazy car salesmen and with their low energy and lack of persuasion skills they failed to successful pitch to clients. As previously stated, Jordan was a natural salesmen and had also learned through his time at L.F. Rothschild how to effectively pitch stocks. Now, Belfort could apply his charismatic and optimistic sales strategy to struggling families who were looking for a financial break. In a braggadocios way, Belfort says, “I was selling garbage to garbage men and making money hand over fist. I was selling them shit. The way I looked at it, their money was better off in my pocket. I knew how to spend it better.”
During this stage of the movie, I could not help but question how much Jordan’s role at L.F. Rothschild played in his decision making to sell worthless penny stocks to hard working lower and middle class families. During Belfort’s time at L.F. Rothschild, he experienced people who became very wealthy by successfully manipulating people to into buying stocks. The key difference is that at L.F. Rothschild, he was getting wealthy clients to invest in non-volatile stocks that were low-risk investments. I personally feel that Belfort was largely influenced by Mark Hanna during his time at L.F. Rothschild and adapted a similar mentality of not caring about the client and just focusing on making money for yourself. I feel that if Belfort were not corrupted with the culture of L.F. Rothschild then he would have not taken the job at Investors Center and justified selling worthless stocks to people. The reason I believe this to be true is when he and Mark Hanna had lunch for the first time, when Belfort learned the truth behind the industry (obsession for sex, drugs, and money) he seemed uncomfortable and taken back by the reality. However, it was very easy for him to justify their actions because their wealth was something Belfort aspired to obtain.
Sitting in a diner eating lunch, Jordan is approached by Donnie Azoff, a man who is envious of Belfort’s car and success. Donnie, a salesmen at a furniture store, wants to know what Belfort does for work and how much money he makes. Belfort nonchalantly tells him he made $72,000 last month. That money was inconceivable to Donnie, and he tells Jordan if he shows him a paystub making that much money he will quit his job immediately and work for him. While this is a pivotal moment for Donnie, it is also just as important for Jordan. Jordan would quit his position with Investors Center after his interaction with Donnie and start his own brokerage firm. Jordan’s wife expressed her concern for the ethical boundaries he was crossing to achieve his success. What bothered her was not that he was selling worthless penny stocks, but that he was selling it to people who were struggling financially. At one point, she asks him, “Wouldn’t you feel better if you sold this to rich people who can afford to lose all of that money?”
From my personal experience, I find that people in our society can easily justify damaging acts against the rich (as Jordan’s wife does above) as long as the person is wealthy. I recall in high school many students who would steal products from big companies like Walmart, and rationalize it by saying Walmart is a multi-billion dollar company and a few dollars is not going to hurt them financially. Personally, I find this super problematic for a society. It does not matter if someone is rich or poor, defrauding someone out of money, which he or she earned, is equally morally and ethically wrong.
With a team of friends, Jordan launches Stratton Oakmont. Unlike Investors Center, Jordan structures the company to target the wealthiest 1% of Americans. In efforts to successful pitch to the country’s richest people, Jordan creates a script for the sales team to follow. The script will allow the unqualified team of salesmen to ideally compete against the stockbrokers at the top Wall Street firms. The Stratton Oakmont stockbrokers would first pitch the clients’ blue-chip stocks, like Disney, AT&T, and IBM. Then once they gained the clients trust, they would then “unload the dog shit, the Pink Sheets, the penny stocks.” Belfort’s plan was an instant success. Over the next few months, the company grew exponentially and Stratton Oakmont was employing hundreds of people. The company adopted a bawdy culture that was more lewd than an uncivilized fraternity house. There is hardly a sign of any females at the firm besides office assistants and prostitutes. During the firms “weekly act of debauchery”, Belfort shaves a female assistants head for $10,000; meanwhile, the crowd of male brokers chant “SCALP HER!” Jordan rationalizes the debauchery because she is going to get breast implants with the money. Proceeding the head shaving of the female, Jordan introduces large number of prostitutes to sexual please the stockbrokers. Following large amounts of publicity for the outlandish acts in the office and its culture of sex, drugs, and money, hundreds of young envious workers lined the hallways of the firm each day begging for a job. Belfort described the environment as equal parts of cocaine, testosterone, and bodily fluids. The vulgar culture of the Stratton Oakmont was spiraling out of control. With employees having sex during all hours of the day in the office, Belfort declared the office a “fuck-free zone” from 8AM to 7PM.
From the never-ending office orgies, we can conclude that the whole office was in a love triangle with one another. Belfort explains how one of the female office assistant had “literally blown every guy in the office.” In addition, we are exposed to quite a bit of homosocial scenes throughout the movie. Multiple times in the movie, the main characters make joking references to “sucking each other off”. Belfort at one point is shown having a threesome with Donnie and one of the female office assistants and brags about “double teaming her.” I found it interesting how there was absolutely no privacy when the executives brought in prostitutes. Stockbrokers would have sex with a prostitute, meanwhile just a few feet beside them was a co-worker having sex with their prostitute.
If shaving a females employees head was not the pinnacle of degeneracy, the executive team at Stratton Oakmont spent large sums of time each week attempting to conjure up an act more ridiculous than the previous week. During one of these meetings, we hear the team of executives pondering vile acts they can do with dwarfs (or midgets). The conversation begins the idea to have them strip naked and have hookers fondle them while the Stratton Oakmont employees throw food, like bananas, at them. Similarly to the story read in class, Chickamauga, when they refer to the disabled boy as “it”, the Stratton Oakmont team refers to the dwarfs as “things” in efforts to dehumanize them. An executive comes up with the idea to throw the dwarfs head first into a bullseye and says, “These things are meant to be thrown like a lawn dart. They’re top heavy so they’re built for accuracy.” The team rationalizes their dehumanization of the dwarfs by saying, “If we don’t consider them a human and just as an act then we are in the clear.” As the group of executives increasingly dehumanize the dwarfs, they start to build a characterization that dwarfs are dangerous. One executive states, “Its safety first around these guys and we are going to have to have someone with a fucking tranquilizer gun ready to knock this fucker out.” It was not until I was planning my analysis for this paper until I truly grasped how insensitive this scene actually was. Watching the movie with friends, the scenes above are funny and seem silly; however, when you think about that these are just normal people with disabilities being made into carnival acts it becomes quite disgusting instead of funny.
Stratton Oakmont prided itself on its sex-crazed culture and fuels by frequently bringing in prostitutes for its male employees. The men are depicted as if they are in a fairytale dream where they can have as much sex with random girls as they please. However, there are two sides story and the way females are depicted throughout the movie is quite troubling. Females are consistently show to be objectified and often dehumanized similar to the dwarfs thrown at the bullseye. Minus the scene of the female office assistant getting her head shaved for $10,000 that she would use for a boob job, females are predominantly shown as solely sex objects. Most female roles within the movie are prostitutes, which Jordan divides up into three categories: the blue chips (“top of the line—model material”), NASDAQ’s (“pretty good, but not great”), and the Pink Sheets (“skanks—super ugly”). I found the description of the prostitutes interesting, because they gave them stock category names, which I found demeaning comparing a female to a categorization of a stock type. With more than one thousand stockbrokers at Stratton Oakmont, the movie only shows one trader being female. Jordan introduces the female stockbroker, Kimmie Beltzer, and tells her inspirational to the other traders in efforts to motivate them. I found it very troubling that there was only one scene that displayed a woman in a powerful role, and that Belfort tells her story in a way that makes him portrayed as a hero.
Jordan was a master at motivating his team. He sold employees on the success they would achieve if they worked at Stratton Oakmont. During an inspiring speech to his brokers, he introduced Kimmie Beltzer, who was one of the first 20 brokers at the first. He tells the team, “Kimmie wears a $3,000 Armani suit each day, drives a Mercedes, spends her winters in the Bahamas and summers in the Hamptons. The Kimmie I first met did not have two nickels to rub together. She was a single Mom on the balls of her ass with an 8-year-old son. Three months behind on her rent. She asked for a $5,000 advance when she started working at Stratton just to pay for her son’s tuition. What did I do? I gave her $25,000.” As describes in the previous paragraph, Jordan tells this story and the team of brokers erupts with roaring applauses. You can the optimism on the faces of each stockbroker following the story as each broker wants to achieve the same success (wealth) Kimmie has achieved. Jordan frequently gives his brokers motivational stories and creates a bond of loyalty between them. He puts their success in their own hands and they look up to him for giving them the opportunity to succeed. Jordan tells his brokers “Are you behind on your credit card bills? Good pick up the phone and start dialing. Is your landlord ready to evict you? Good! Pick up the phone and start dialing. Does your girlfriend think you’re a fucking worthless loser? Good! Pick up the phone and start dialing. I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich!” Jordan was not just selling snake oil to his brokers. Many of the trades were becoming very wealthy as he promised.
By the late 90s, the FBI and SEC had launched a full investigation into Stratton Oakmont. The company was being investigated for a pump-and-dump scheme, which is where a firm artificially inflates the price of a stock to rapidly raise the price before selling. Over 1,000 employee were interrogated and not one cracked to feds demands to give insight into the firm. Watching these scenes, I was astounded how loyal the employees were and not one employee came forward. It was a true testament that the people of Stratton Oakmont would do anything to keep their fairytale dream alive. Being a college student, I drew many comparisons in this loyalty to a fraternity that was being investigated and how everyone feels united to stand up for the organization and its standing no matter if they are lying or not. In 1989, Stratton Oakmont pleaded guilty to numerous counts of securities fraud and was forced to close its doors.
The Wolf of Wall Street story is centered around sex, drugs, and money. However, through the paper, I have attempted to point out some critiques of the money that aren’t so glorious from the dehumanization of dwarfs, sexual objectification of women, and the greed of Stratton Oakmont. However, I think after watching and analyzing a movie life The Wolf of Wall Street, it is a fair question to raise if the directors glorified many of these damaging characterizations above. I remember my junior year in high school when the movie came out and every guy wanted to be like Jordan Belfort when he grew up and have the hottest girls by their side and incredibly wealthy. Many people choose to only view the glorified aspects of the movie and neglect how he was building this wealth. Belfort manipulated and defrauded many hard working people from all socioeconomic classes out of money. Being a business student, and someone who spent years desperately wanting to go into banking, I have spent large sums of time contemplating career paths. Last year, I interviewed at all the top investment banks and financial institutions for summer roles. While the environment and culture is far less egregious than Stratton Oakmont is many of the same aspects remain the same. I ended up turning down all my offers for many reasons, but primarily because I felt like the whole thing was a complete “fugazi”. One firm I interviewed with, one of the most prestigious banks in the world bragged and joked about creating markets for trading garbage containers, trading cards, and anything else creative they could create a market trading. During Mark Hanna and Belfort’s lunch, Hanna says, “We don’t create shit. We don’t build shit.” By no means am I trying to conclude that financial institutions are evil, but Hanna’s statement remains true in many aspects today. There is not much societal benefit contributed from many financial institution besides enriching bankers and the billionaire class. Financial institutions must find a way to correct in order to retain and acquire the best talent. Recently, technology firms have created large competition for big banks as they are able to pay competitive salaries to the money-hungry business school students coming out of school that place large emphasis on company culture compared to solely making money. However, I believe the same question should be raised with both financial institutions and technology firms: Are the firms creating societal value? Arguably, technology firms are far more dangerous than financial institutions for society because most all are involved in some way to advancing robotics and automation, which has already displaced millions of working-class individuals across the U.S. and job displacement for low-skilled employees will exponentially rise over the next decade as the technology advances.
The Wolf of Wall Street raised many moral questions from the treatment of women and disabled and the role money plays in shaping an individual values. Jordan Belfort inspired over one thousand people to commit themselves to him in order to become rich. He creates an environment and culture so unreal it seems that it would have to be fiction, however, in a recent interview with Pierce Morgan, Jordan Belfort called the movie “chilling” for its accuracy and said he would not feel comfortable saying some of the other acts they committed. Each day he told his brokers to be “ferocious, relentless, and telephone fucking wizards” and in return he made them rich. The ride was wild and short-lived, but the story raises many unanswered questions that still reign in our society today.