Book of Mammon, Part I
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET [film], Martin Scorsese [director]
[Pedant warning: references to Jordan Belfort in this article are to the fictionalised character in The Wolf of Wall Street, not to the real person.]
I finished Money, Martin Amis’ novel of eighties debauchery, a few days after watching Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which has been so popular since its release last month that apparently it’s now impossible to actually go and see it. It turns out that my timing was quite the artistic alignment of the planets; Scorsese’s film is in many respects a skewed adaptation of Amis’ novel, from the transatlantic flights to near-death experiences, by way of rampant misogyny and orgiastic self-indulgence.
Perhaps it’s easiest to get the differences out of the way first. The protagonist in Money is an ambitious English ad-exec called John Self; DiCaprio’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street is an ambitious New York trader called Jordan Belfort. They both consume rapaciously, but the former has a debilitating weakness for junk food and suffers from numerous associated symptoms – Rug & Gut & Gum issues – whereas the steady diet of cocaine and Quaaludes has no appreciable effect on Belfort’s outward appearance beyond mild facial sweats.
On the other hand, they are both addicted to money; of all the drugs on offer this is their favourite:
SELF: Maybe money is the great conspiracy, the great fiction. The addiction too: we’re all addicted and we can’t break the habit now […] You can’t get the money monkey off your back.
BELFORT: Enough of this shit’ll make you invincible, able to conquer the world and eviscerate your enemies. Money is the oxygen of capitalism and I wanna breathe more than any other human being alive.
In a way, this is because money is the great facilitator: without money there can be no addictions to the more conventional drugs of cocaine, booze and sex. But it is also because both characters see money as the ultimate goal, the end that justifies all means, and think therefore that making money will save them from having to give any thought to the complexities of life. To this extent, Belfort’s great moment of discomfort doesn’t come with his final arrest or prison sentence (spoiler alert: we seem him playing tennis in prison at the end) but when he is confronted by his straight-laced pursuer Agent Denham of the FBI on his boat. Denham gently makes it known that he sees Belfort as a petty criminal – “Good for you little man” – and it is this informal indictment of character that Belfort is unable to cope with: “Alright, get the fuck off my boat. Good luck on that subway ride home to your miserable, ugly wives.” In other words, he snaps at the mere implication that there might be something to life other than money, and that he might somehow be missing out.
Similarly, John Self is troubled by the thought that there might be something else out there that he is only vaguely aware of. This ‘something else’ manifests itself most obviously in the form of literature, and specifically the appearance of a fictionalised Martin Amis within the novel itself. Self initially despises Amis for what he sees as aloofness and snobbery, but they eventually get to know one another, only for Self to turn his back on Amis once again when the latter’s character evaluation cuts too close to the bone. Perhaps this is the symbolism in the final chess game between the two of them; Self thinks he’s won but stutters to a crushing defeat. Our final impression of the protagonist is therefore as an unlikely ingénu, outwitted on all fronts by the complexities of life.
One of the things I liked most about both book and film, however, is that neither of them is a morality tale in the conventional sense (in fact, The Wolf has been roundly, and I think unfairly, criticised for glamourising city excess and psychopathic behaviour). Both protagonists suffer comeuppance of a sort for their lives of lecherous abandonment, but that’s not really the point. For my money the point is twofold. Firstly, that living a life of lecherous abandonment is extremely good fun, and the depiction of the high life in both works is nothing short of hilarious, not to mention envy-inspiring on many levels. Secondly, that the high life is actually quite a narrow life, offering little beyond hedonistic gratification. However, this does not amount to an “I told you so” criticism because there is only an oblique suggestion that there is actually anything else out there. The latter point is for the viewer/reader to decide, as it is in real life, and it is not an easy call to make, partly I would suggest because money is very tangible and ‘other stuff’ (art, love, justice, friendship, morality, intellectual fulfilment) tends to be less so. Which is why in one of the final scenes of The Wolf we see a weary Agent Denham riding the subway home looking distinctly ambiguous about how things have turned out (very much like the young couple on the bus at the end of The Graduate), and perhaps wondering whether he should have taken that bribe.
As the ever-sage Keith Richards says: “I look for ambiguity when I’m writing because life is ambiguous.”