The film follows Belfort from his arrival on Wall Street to his "downfall," his imprisonment for a few short years that was then followed by a successful career as a motivational speaker. In between, we see how Belfort and his associates - namely Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), his right-hand man - as they conduct their business. A business, of course, that mostly amounts to scamming people into buying stocks that are essentially worthless, exploiting as many legal loopholes as they can find, hiring prostitutes and then going home to their wives, and taking more drugs - particularly cocaine and quaaludes - than the human body should be able to handle. Even when the FBI - led by Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) - comes knocking at his door, Belfort refuses to give in, believing that there's no possible way that he and the company could be taken down.
It's easy to see why director Martin Scorsese would be drawn to a character like Belfort. The man has made a terrific filmography about morally-inhibited men doing what they have to to get by. But Belfort is something else altogether, a monster who has no interest in "getting by;" he wants to have it all. Scorsese is fully willing to dive into this heart of darkness, and the film begins with Belfort having already lost his soul, then flashing back not to the moment where he sells it to the devil so much as ties it to a cinder block at forces it out the 70th floor window. For a film that stretches nearly three hours, Scorsese does a remarkable job at making the sickening bacchanalia bearable, and this is thanks to a few choices moments when the film, unfolding mostly from Belfort's point-of-view, removes itself from him and takes the perspective of the audience. The Wolf of Wall Street is very much a satire, but it's these moments when the film steps back and shows us what a pitiful, disgusting bastard Belfort is that it makes its point: we in the audience should be appalled not only that this was the culture of Wall Street, but that it still is to this day.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a film that has stirred up quite a controversy since its release, namely around whether the film glorifies or condemns the activities onscreen. But Scorsese's film, it seems, falls on the latter side without actually doing so. The truth is this: Belfort got off easy. He suffered very little - if any, really - consequences for his actions, and never once gave any thought to the victims of his illicit doings. In fact, more than anything, the real Belfort actually gained from his punishment. Scorsese's film wants you to be mad as hell about that. I know I was. A-