The Dignity of The Wolf of Wall Street

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I enjoyed the movie The Wolf of Wall Street…sort of. Now, before I am put on trial and judged as being a terrible Catholic for such a statement, allow me to explain. Was the movie full of vulgarity and immorality? Absolutely. In fact, I’m having trouble thinking of another mainstream movie where I have seen with so much of it. I would certainly never allow my children to watch such a movie either. However, there is something that can be taken away from the movie other than its “evils.” There is such a profound sadness about the characters whose lives are ripped apart by addiction, but even more so the movie points to a reality of true poverty in our world today. I will attempt to give a brief synopsis appropriate for my audience.

The movie, as one could assume from the title, is about a stock broker. Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, it captures the career of Belfort from his first day on Wall Street to the day of his arrest for all sorts of corporate crimes. In the early scenes of the movie Belfort seems to be an honest young man.  Newly married, he is eager to start his new job and begin making money. Viewers can immediately tell that he has is talented. Belfort eventually starts his own trading company after learning how to make the most money on certain stock trades. He learns how to “play the system.”

What begins as a small operation out of a rented garage, becomes one of the largest most profitable organizations in the trading industry.  Belfort and a group of his buddies head the company and it isn’t long before they are consumed by their addictions. They become addicted to money, making money off of other people’s money. They become addicted to drugs and slaves to lust. His lifestyle, addictions, and lustful infidelity cost Belfort his marriage. Not too long after that, however, he remarries, giving his new wife a yacht as a wedding present. Needless to say, Belfort had more money than he knew what to do with.

The turning point for me while watching the movie (once I got past the absurdity of such a lifestyle) was when Belfort is approached by a certain FBI agent who was investigating Belfort’s company. After the meeting, Belfort begins the attempt to cover up his crimes and financial corruption. The FBI agent becomes hell-bent on taking Belfort down. The exchange between the FBI agent and Belfort would seem to be an illustration of how misconstrued the world can become when dealing with individuals.

On one hand you have men (and women) like Belfort, who compare themselves to others based on what they have-I have more money than you, a bigger house than you, a nicer car, etc. On the other hand you find a majority of viewers who would label men like Belfort as greedy, immoral, and deserving to rot in prison—men like the FBI agent who see criminals as lesser beings.

What’s interesting about movies and theater is that the audience can often find themselves routing for both the hero and the villain. There is a part of me that wanted Belfort to get away with everything while another part of me was glad that he was caught for being dishonest with such a vast amount of wealth. The bigger issue, I believe, is the forgotten dignity of individuals. For instance, to say that criminals are lesser beings because they have committed a crime is equally judgmental as saying someone is not as important due to their poverty or lack of possessions. When we take either stance, we are doing exactly what Christ instructed us not to do. We judge and we diminish the dignity of the human person.

Once I got beyond the vulgarities and immorality of the movie, I was struck with a deep sadness. For a fleeting moment I thought about what I would do with all of that money and how different my life would be if I didn’t have to worry about finances. Then the reality set in—this was a true story and there are real people who live like this. There is a serious problem with poverty in our world. In the United States, we think of poverty in terms of having and not having. Yet there is an even greater poverty among those who “have it all.” There is a poverty of spirit—a poverty of dignity. While it was sad to watch a man become consumed by things, it was also sad to watch a man treat another human being as a wild animal that needed to be caged. The God-given dignity of the human person is becoming lost, not just among those who do evil things, but by those who seek justice as well. We are called, now more than ever, to recognize the dignity each individual possesses.

There are many ways in which we can overcome this poverty. First and foremost, we must recognize our own dignity. We must come to understand that each man, woman and child is created in God’s image and likeness. Every man, woman, and child deserves to be loved and nothing less than that. This includes those in prison, those who suffer from addiction, those who are in nursing homes, those living on the streets, those unemployed, those with no one to care for them, and those “forgotten” by society.  This includes executives, bankers, teachers, custodians, chefs, realtors, steelworkers, and secretaries. Each and every human being from conception to natural death, is to be loved—by you and me.

Secondly, we must remind ourselves that we are all sinners. I am a sinner and I pray every day for the graces I need to be a better disciple of Christ. I must constantly remind myself that everyone is just as guilty as I am, which puts things in a greater perspective—who am I to judge them? Each person has their own struggles, their own crosses, and their own sins, which I pray they are attempting to overcome with the mercy and grace of Christ.

Finally, we must re-learn to love, daily if necessary. My spiritual director always uses the analogy of professional baseball players. When they are in a slump, what do they do? They return the basics, taking extra swings in batting practice and pulling out a tee (like they were in the beginning of their baseball careers) in attempts to relearn the basics. We too must return to the basics; return to the beginning. In the beginning God made man and woman in his image (Genesis 1:27). God placed man and woman over all other creatures. He gave them everything that He saw as “good.” He loved them into being and when they were unfaithful, He was faithful, even to the point of becoming one of us and dying on the cross for us. In that image we were created. It is that image that will take us out of a poverty of dignity to the richness of love.

Matthew Higgins

Matthew Higgins

Matthew Higgins serves as Assistant to the Vocation Director for the Archdiocese of Newark and adjunct professor of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University. He holds a Master's degree in Systematic Theology from Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University. His 10 year ministerial experience ranges from Junior High faith formation to Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministry. He lives with his wife, Olivia and 2 children in Northern NJ.

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2 thoughts on “The Dignity of The Wolf of Wall Street”

  1. Avatar
    NicholasBeriah Cotta

    Good points all the way down – I think it is important that to evangelize in the times we live in to make sure we don’t throw out the “wheat with the weeds.” We need to know, understand, and consume popular culture because that’s where people are; to do those things is not to endorse it.
    I don’t know how many times I’ve heard even my fellow Catholics confuse piety with rejecting bad words and rated R movies- it is an image that we need to change. People can sense the “wheat” in our culture, in movies like this, and when we tell them that a good God thinks they’re bad people for watching them, they intuitively get the wrong idea of what God would think about popular culture (and by extension, them)- He loves the truth, which good art always displays, and He loves every person, no matter how sinful they are (it only delights Him more to rescue them.) If popular culture contains the truth, it contains God, and why need to be there to explain why (like you did here). Don’t get me wrong; there is plenty of gratuitous vulgarity in popular culture that we should not even both watching, but usually it uses vulgarity to mask its dullness, not vulgarity to highlight the truth.

  2. Avatar

    “For instance, to say that criminals are lesser beings because they have committed a crime is equally judgmental as saying someone is not as important due to their poverty or lack of possessions.” Equally judgmental, maybe, but not equally untrue (assuming the we are talking about the violation of a just law).

    As you say, we are created in the image of God. What that mostly means is that we are capable of making morally significant choices with real consequences. We may not become “lesser beings” by order of nature, but we definitely can become “lesser beings” by order of grace, as Lucifer did when he became Satan. We can become saints, or we can be damned forever. There really is no parallel between that and material poverty.

    Time for a thought experiment. Let’s say Alex was a 20 year old in 1974 when he murdered a policeman while trying to escape from a robbery he had just committed. After that, he changed his name and identity and moved to a different state to avoid capture. Today, 40 years later, Alex is identified. He has lived a middle-class existence and stayed out of trouble with the law since 1980.

    Alex will have to stand trial for his crime of 40 years ago. We may pity Alex, we may forgive Alex (assuming we have any right to forgive him, which is doubtful unless his crime actually affected us), but we will definitely think worse of him because of what we now know.

    Bob was also 20 years old in 1974, at which time he was homeless, penniless, and unemployed. He hitchhiked his way to another state and settled down there. Bob has also lived a middle-class existence and stayed out of trouble with the law since 1980.

    Only the most outrageous snob will look down on Bob for having been penniless 40 years ago. More likely, Bob will be praised for having overcome his obstacles.

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