Image: Sky Editorial Asset Centre

How films make us want to be a ‘wolf’ on Wall Street

Here’s an advertisement for an event entitled: ‘Wolf of Wall-Street Party’ a couple of years ago at the O2: “Greetings to all our Wall Street traders! You’ve been fantastic this year, and to celebrate, we’re throwing a huge NYE event at Indigo at the O2 […] The party is designed to be spontaneous, exciting and as such, we’ve booked in Wall Street hosts and the very best DJs to keep the party rocking throughout.”

It is interesting how Wall Street’s reputation is more about wild parties instead of trading and work. I would argue that films such as The Wolf of Wall Street tend to represent jobs in the financial sector alongside focusing on ,  leaves the audience believing this is what really happens all the time in this sector. Naturally, moments of conflict, instability and change allow for drama within the film which drives the plot, which is beneficial to the commercial side of cinema that has historically be interested in focusing on films that shock audiences. But there is a discontinuity between the extreme elements of cinema depiction and the reality of the day-to-day quotidian elements of the actual jobs in the financial sector.

Nevertheless, the betrayal, greed, and moral apathy that springs up in these moments of fictional and non-fictional crises (which movies like Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street and the Big Short  depict and critique) is sometimes taken as the opposite of its presumably intended reading. Events, such as the party cited above that are not uncommon for students, investors-in-training and fully-fledged employees. These events are also egregious examples of the way cinematic representation can be twisted in order to symbolically indulge in (and therefore support) the promotion of unethical financial operations of the kind that led to the 2008 Financial Crisis.

It is phenomenal to see the effect of these films on people who aspire towards this lifestyle

Perhaps what is more disturbing still is that these films and the leading characters like ‘Gordon Gecko’ and ‘Jordon Belfort’ are idolised, even imitated by certain teenagers and young people who have a desired career-path towards the financial sector. I’ve had friends who want to be traders (and some who now are), who would watch The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short repeatedly, would quote it, do the Matthew McConaughey chest beat thing, dress up as its characters, in short, dream of an excessive mode of life that functions through the financial industries. It is phenomenal to see the effect of these films on people who aspire towards this lifestyle.

It appears that the motive for being a trader arguably drifts from having a genuine interest in finance and markets. The reviewing of these films then becomes a drive toward neoliberal greed, hustling and moral apathy disguised as learning. Even in the explicit political critique of The Big Short, the take-away seems to be “look how clever those investors were to make all that money off of such a crisis”, ignoring the suffering of the real victims of the crisis.

What appears to be taken away from these kinds of films are the pleasures of excess – “greed is good” – and the creativity of ripping someone off which is worrying when these obsessions seem to correspond with their career path. Accordingly, several questions are raised: Why do the moral underpinnings of these movies fail for some people and not for others? To what extent will the negative effects of these films on certain people effect their future financial choices? Of course, the films are great fun to watch and, in the case of the three cited above, they are delivered with such style and humour that the question of what the responsibility of the filmmakers depicting this kind of excess is, becomes a key one.

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