Christina McDowell makes a strong argument that the answer is yes. Her impassioned, if not always grammatically precise cri-de-coeur in LA Weekly about The Wolf of Wall Street and her father’s role in the real-life crime behind it has prompted a spirited debate about the film’s merits and message.
McDowell’s father was a Washington securities lawyer named Thomas Prousalis who pled guilty to engaging in penny stock fraud in the 1990s. The star witness set to testify against him was none other than Jordan Belfort, the author of the memoir on which the film is based who pled guilty to securities fraud and served as a government witness in more than two dozen cases. Because Prousalis switched his plea from not guilty to guilty halfway through his trial, Belfort didn’t actually take the stand against him.
Prousalis’s family, meanwhile, was destroyed by his crime, as McDowell explains in “An Open Letter to the Makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf Himself.”
“As an eighteen-year-old, I had no idea what was going on. But then again, did anyone? Certainly your investors didn’t—and they were left holding the bag when you cashed out your holdings and got rich off their money,” she says, adding that her mother had a breakdown, her sister ran away from home, and McDowell almost became homeless. “So here’s the deal. You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.”
Belfort has professed to be sorry about the criminal life he once led and all the pain he caused his investors, friends, and family. He ties himself in knots trying to portray his story as a cautionary tale. “‘Convicted stock swindler’—it’s like it hurts my heart,” he told me in October. ”I know it was true, but it’s not who I am.” But watching him revel in the wealth and notoriety his book and subsequent movie deal have brought him makes his argument hard to accept.
Then there is the movie itself: hours of drugs, hookers, wild parties, and Leonardo DiCaprio-as-Belfort cackling over how ecstatic he is about it all. Sure, things go bad in the end, and the FBI finally nails him, but you don’t get the sense he’d do anything differently. It’s entertaining and empty—but is it realistic to expect anything more?
Critics are divided on the question. “The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours of horrible people doing horrible things and admitting to being horrible,” writes David Edelstein in New York magazine. “But you’re supposed to envy them anyway, because the alternative is working at McDonald’s and riding the subway alongside wage slaves.”