The film The Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. is a fantastically over the top, but still broadly accurate depiction of a psychopath in high level Western business, particularly the financial world. DiCaprio is the lead role and depicts the life of Jordan Belfort, a real life former Wall Street trader who served time for committing fraud and other offences in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s.
Technically speaking, DiCaprio’s Belfort character is probably more of a sociopath than a psychopath, in that he appears to be moulded and shaped by the toxic environment he enters rather than coming in as an evil person. He holds an initial fascination with the world he enters and as he is quickly drawn in we see the moral decline of his character as his life and relationships become ever more ridiculous and spiral out of control.
The performance by DiCaprio is full on and committed in a way that makes the film fascinating and entertaining even if at times we may be horrified at some of the things he does to others. How factually accurate the film is is open to debate, with some events likely exaggerated a little, but DiCaprio still perfectly depicts the downslide of his character through a combination of environment and a series of choices he makes.
As the film progresses starts to display more and more sociopathic traits, including a glib superficiality and materialism, an arrogant sense of entitlement, poor treatment of others, a hateful attitude towards humanity, rampant promiscuity and a relentless need for stimulation. The decline of his character is also what brings him down as he becomes too arrogant and careless and FBI and SEC investigators swoop in to trap him.
Click here to view The Wolf of Wall Street on Amazon
Seduced By The Lifestyle
Early on we see DiCaprio’s Belfort character land on Wall Street as a junior broker, and the film straight away depicts a toxic, psychopathic environment, with Belfort himself being spoken to like a piece of dirt by his superior on his first day. Far from being offended by the atmosphere that greets him, he revels in it. Here is a line from the first 10 minutes of the film:
“I couldn’t believe how these guys talked to each other…I was hooked in seconds!”
This one quote goes to the very nub of an issue DiCaprio also portrays skilfully and with nuance in his character early on in the film – is a person made sociopathic by being in toxic environments like this or do they gravitate towards these environments because they are already sociopathic in the first place?
Belfort appears to take to the environment like a duck to water, in the early stages being polite, quiet and controlled as he is learning the ropes under his handler Marl Hanna, played by Matthew McConaughey. Far from being horrified by the toxic environment he has entered, he loves it and nods his head at all the advice Hanna gives him, no matter how unethical.
At this stage though he still has some kind of moral brakecheck and decency, but this is quickly removed as he becomes more and more immersed in the world. He ends up losing his job after the Black Monday crash but then moves on to an independent stock broker and then later sets up on his own with his accomplice Donnie (Jonah Hill).
Now he calls the shots and he can be the one who is treating others badly instead of being on the receiving end. This is typical of the psychopathic corporate world in that the mindset is hierarchical, “kill or be killed” and “every man for himself”. We see Belfort as a disciple of ego and power in this world, typical of these character types.
The decline in his character is tracked through the relationship he has with his first wife, Teresa (Christin Milioti), who notices how the lifestyle they are enjoying with his job is not being earned in the most moral way. Belfort is selling penny stocks to vulnerable investors, many of whom lose their money on the investments, with Belfort and his workers knowing full well this is the likely outcome.
“Would you not feel better if you sold to rich people who could afford to lose that money?” she asks him. He shrugs off the concerns, indicating that even at this point he has largely lost any sense of morality and just wants an easy lifestyle for himself, no matter the damage he causes in the lives of others.
Over the film we also see his drug use spiral out of control, initially to handle the stress of his trading job but then just as an addiction and form of entertainment and stimulation that he needs because the character has become empty and dead inside. Some of the scenes are really over the top on this, perhaps designed to plunge the viewer into that sense of excess that permeated the world Belfort lived in at the time.
The Sociopath Traits of Belfort
Over the course of the film DiCaprio accurately portrays many sociopath traits developing in his Belfort character. He already has an at best ambiguous morality at the start of the film, since he seems enticed rather than repelled by the world he sees, but still has at least some signs of decency and self control.
Over the course of the film, we see the moral parts of his character decline and the sociopathic part grow to the point he loses all sense of morality and conscience. The film depicts sociopathy as a process of moral decay more than an innate state, and is quite accurate in this sense. A combination of environment and personal choice darkens the character of Belfort.
Here are some of the traits of Belfort’s character in the film which accurately match those of sociopathy:
- A glib superficial charm and ability to “chit the chat” with people.
- A superficial kind of charisma he uses to control the mob of workers who blindly follow him.
- An arrogant sense of entitlement and invincibility.
- No morality, conscience or ethics in the way he lives. No remorse for wrongdoing.
- A disrespectful and contemptuous attitude towards his workers, berating and belittling anyone who gets in his way or annoys him.
- A hateful attitude towards the customers he is selling the rubbish stocks to. A misanthropic “fuck you, you deserve it” attitude.
- Rampant cheating on his wives and poor treatment of them in general. No impulse control.
- Constant hedonism – drug use, sex, drink, partying as a cover for internal emptiness and boredom.
The glibness and superficiality is a trait that is particularly well played by DiCaprio. Belfort can be an amazing orator, command the attention of a crowd and say all the right things at the right time, but there is no real depth or meaning there. It is all surface or “froth” and this kind of fakeness is something typical of psychopaths and sociopaths.
The sense of arrogance and entitlement that grows inside him is also something that is well depicted. He see Margot Robbie’s Naomi character at a party and instantly wants to get with her. He introduces himself and immediately starts trying to chat her up, ignoring her boyfriend who is stood right next to her and pretending he doesn’t exist. His own wife is also outside watching but he doesn’t care.
There is an implusive kind of mindset where he sees something, and instantly wants it and thinks he is also entitled to it, regardless of who or what might be in the way. There is a brazenness in the way he approaches Naomi that is typical of sociopaths. The money and power have by this point gone to his head and he thinks he can have whatever he wants and trample over whoever he needs to along the way.
Sure enough he cheats on his wife with Naomi and his wife catches him, which is played in the film as a moment when he loses all connection with any kind of morality. He divorces her and moves on quickly. He doesn’t care by this point the damage he causes to others getting what he wants. He just does what he wants. There’s no filter or boundaries anymore.
Even his new marriage to Naomi starts to eventually disintegrate as his behavior spirals even more out of control. He’s got what he wants but soon enough he wants something else, again portraying the impulsiveness and easily bored nature of the sociopath. They constantly need novelty and stimulation because they are so empty and fake inside.
As the authorities close in and his drug use becomes more and more ridiculous, his marriage to Naomi declines and he starts to become abusive towards her. By this point he is out of control and it is only when he puts his own daughter’s life at risk trying to win an argument that there is finally a glimmer of realization in him of how low he has sunk.
The Baying Mob of Imbeciles
The charismatic Belfort also has behind him his mob or clique or worshippers or followers in his trading firm, using his oratory skills to keep them in the palm of his hand. He constantly uses his form of persuasion to whip them up into a frenzy and they look upon him as a god or a prophet.
These parts of the film are sometimes a little prolonged and annoying but capture well how easily the skilled white collar sociopath can manipulate others, and how easily led by surface charm and charisma most people are. See our article on psychopaths and the crowd for our own take on how easily predatory characters can manipulate and take in others.
Through the force of his persona he able whip them up into a yelling, out of control, moronic mass, blindly agreeing with whatever he says or wants them to do. All his words are fake of course and there is no real feeling or authenticity there. He just wants to get from A to B any way he sees fit.
That doesn’t stop the people in his company lapping up everything Belfort has to say and just acting like mindless sheep and morons. Anyone who has dealt with real life psychopaths in the workplace knows how annoying it can be to see how easily these characters can manipulate apathetic, weak people with no mind of their own into doing their bidding for them.
There is a clever little scene in the movie that shows this dynamic, where they enlist the help of the help of the founder of a company when promoting their stocks in an Initial Public Offering. Initially the mob of imbeciles ignores and disrespects him, not making the connection that listening to him talk about his products will allow them to do their own job of promoting the stock in his company better once the IPO opens later in the day.
DiCaprio’s Belfort character jumps in and settles the mob down, since he at least realizes the fact that the product information the founder can provide will help the IPO go more smoothly. He gives a fantastic speech emphasizing the value and creativity of the designer and his products, extolling his virtues and talents, then abruptly tells the same man to “get the fuck off the stage”.
It was all an act to get the mindless mob fired up. He can say all the right things but all the words and interactions are fake and he has no real regard for anyone in his life. The sociopath or psychopath can deliver compliments and appreciate others when it suits but only in an instrumental, calculating way, and only because it benefits them in some way. There is no authenticity or genuineness to their interactions. People are objects to be used. They couldn’t care less about people for themselves.
Belfort Brings Himself Down
As with so many psychopaths and sociopaths, the film depicts how Belfort’s arrogance and delusion eventually brought him down on various charges of corruption and fraud. Of course the context in real life is usually not so dramatic, but the general idea that these characters lack any idea of the bigger picture and will through their dishonesty and mistreatment of others bring about their own downfall definitely holds true.
In Belfort’s case he was so drunk with money and power and so lacking in self control, the viewer can see that sooner or later he is going to make a mistake and get himself caught. The entire film paints a picture of out of control people who can only see one step ahead and few sane voices such as Belfort’s father Max (Rob Reiner) who try to show them the bigger picture.
You see a divorce from reality from Belfort as he arrogantly tries to charm and bribe, and then openly denigrates and insults FBI officers who are on to him. At this point he believes he is invincible and untouchable and can do whatever he wants.
He has a plea bargain that would see him get off very lightly but refuses to resign from his company to allow this and delivers another delusional speech to the moronic mob about how he is going nowhere. He inserts a lot of saccharine sweet fake morality into the speech to make it seems as though he has done good for others, when in fact his entire career has been dishonest to the core.
The Wolf of Wall Street is an excellent depiction of corporate greed and sociopathy. The setting and plot are sometimes a little over-dramatized and extreme, but the general depiction of moral decline, poor treatment of others, lack of concern or remorse, shallowness and superficiality and rampant hedonism is very accurate for psychopathic and sociopathic characters.
See also on Amazon the book of the same name on which the film is based, written by the real life Jordan Belfort himself.
See here for our other Psychopaths in Film article.