The Wolf of Wall Street: Why we like a villain

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street Image copyright Universal Studios

Good guys and bad guys, black hats and white hats. These are the staples of good story-telling, with many of us drawn to the villain's dark glamour - in fiction at least.

For writers and film makers, the world of finance has proved a rich source of stories, because ever since the credit crunch of 2008 it has become clear that decisions made by financiers affect us all - like it or not.

Gone are the days when banking was thought of as dusty and dry, the preserve of rather grey men in pin-striped suits.

Now it seems, bankers have replaced gangsters or cat-stroking Bond villains in secret lairs as the characters we love to hate.

The latest film to explore the darker side of human behaviour is Martin Scorsese's, The Wolf of Wall Street.

It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as real-life crook Jordan Belfort, who cheated investors out of $200m (£120m) with fraudulent share sales through his US brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont.

He and his colleagues used pressure sales tactics to sell worthless shares, talking up the value of these shares they had bought cheaply.

They then sold them for a profit - leaving other investors with losses when the inflated share prices collapsed.

The film is based on a book that Belfort, who ended up in jail after pleading guilty in 1999 to securities fraud and money laundering, wrote about his experiences.

'They didn't care'

Some have accused it of concentrating solely on the hedonistic excesses of its principals, as they blitzed through their ill-gotten gains in a blizzard of fast cars, planes, yachts, drink, drugs and prostitutes.

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Media captionLeonardo DiCaprio describes The Wolf of Wall Street as "very dear to my heart"

"Thousands of victims were victimised by their behaviour - and they don't appear in this film in any respect at all," says lawyer Joel Cohen, who was lead prosecutor in the case against Belfort.

"Many of the victims gave Belfort's firm a large percentage of their life savings. Many of them were wiped out or close to wiped out because their investments ended up being utterly worthless."

The film's star, Leonardo DiCaprio, says there were good reasons for focussing on the behaviour of Belfort and his colleagues.

"We know the ramifications of these actions, we know the people that are going to suffer on the other end of the line.

"What we're more interested in, is the very nature of who these people are," he told the BBC's Justin Rowlatt ahead of the film's UK premiere in London.

"This is an accurate reflection of their lives. This is who these people were and they didn't care about the consequences of their actions.

"They didn't care about the other people on the other end of the line. They cared about becoming more rich and more powerful and living the sort of corrupted American dream," he says.

'Parasites and psychopaths'

With a stream of financial fraud cases in recent years many critics have argued that the financial world's moral compass is badly in need of a reset.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Jordan Belfort spent 22 months in jail and was ordered to pay back $110m

But, says DiCaprio, it is important to remember that this film is not about pointing fingers at who was ultimately to blame for the 2008 global financial crisis.

"These weren't the people that ultimately bankrupted our country, these are guys from the underworld that were trying to emulate the guys that were simultaneously dismantling our economy."

"Audiences, when you have a protagonist that behaves this disreputably, you want to see them pay the price for that.

"But what happened in reality? Most of the people who dismantled our economy got bonuses, they didn't serve proper time."

'Self-deluded' bankers

Dutch anthropologist and writer, Joris Luyendijk, who has blogged about Britain's financial industry says that if we insist on seeing financiers as simple villains we miss an essential point.

"We like the idea of financiers as parasites and as psychopaths but it is more unsettling than that."

Virtually nobody predicted the 2008 crash, he says.

"Until the whole house came down - everybody believed it was going well. Scriptwriters love a villain who knows he is a villain - but a villain who believes he is a good guy, that's so difficult.

"The central problem of banking is self-delusion. Many bankers thought they were totally uninvolved in what happened - or were just one cog in a far bigger wheel.

"You don't have to be a coke-snorting psychopath to run the world economy into the ground."

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Media captionMartin Scorsese: "We didn't try to judge their world and the people"

Systemic failures

For Leonardo DiCaprio, the crash of 2008 may now have led to more legal oversight of the financial sector - but that does not mean we can relax our guard.

"It's corrected itself but unless we keep a close eye on it, it's going to happen over and over again."

However, Joris Luyendijk says the real problem is not individual rogue traders, but is far deeper and more systemic.

"It is the financial system itself which is sick. I don't want to exonerate the bankers but when you look at the financial industry, it is hard to find the villains."

Listen to Leonardo DiCaprio's interview with Justin Rowlatt here.

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