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Tuesday, January 21, 2014
'Wolf' reflects current values

By Jason Whitlock
ESPN.com

Leonardo DiCaprio and Alex Rodriguez
Leonardo DiCaprio's character in "The Wolf of Wall Street" reflects current American mores as much as Alex Rodriguez does.

Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" is intentionally unrepentant, clueless and immoral.

The movie's tone deafness is a reflection of our modern culture. "The Wolf" is Hollywood's "Magna Carta Holy Grail." Jordan Belfort is Shawn Carter; Jay B is Jay Z.

"F--kWithMeYouKnowIGotIt" is Belfort's theme song. Scorsese filmed a three-hour rap video, telling Belfort's story through a figure-flattering trick mirror. The Oscar-nominated dramedy is a Facebook page, an Instagram slide and a Twitter feed.

I absolutely love the movie.

It exposes the commonality and the pervasiveness of values most often ascribed to the poor, uneducated and dark skinned. Greed, hedonism and a lack of self-awareness are American character flaws, the foundational characteristics of a red, white and blue religion with no affinity for a particular group.

Jordan Belfort and "The Crooks of Wall Street" are Alex Rodriguez.

In the aftermath of the "60 Minutes"-driven A-Rod news cycle, a friend asked me why the slugger won't walk away. He's 38 years old. He has earned more than $300 million. He has played 19 seasons. He was MVP three times. He got his championship with the Yankees. He won. He beat the system. Performance-enhancing drugs helped him earn generational wealth. Why not disappear to some exotic island with a beautiful model and live in relative anonymity? Why fight the suspension? Why keep his name in the news? Why let the media exploit him?

It's greed. It's a lack of self-awareness. It's the same character flaws that stopped Belfort in "The Wolf of Wall Street" from walking away when his lawyers cut a deal with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Belfort's dad explained to his son that he'd won and it was time to step aside quietly. Belfort agreed. And then, at the last minute, he stepped to the microphone (pulpit) at Stratton Oakmont and preached a sermon to his congregation of stockbrokers about how he wouldn't be a hypocrite and take no for an answer. The money, the power, the fame and, most likely, the drugs corrupted Belfort's mind, made him believe he was invincible.

Belfort also believed he was doing what everyone else was doing on Wall Street. Inflating the value of worthless penny stocks in the 1990s was no more corrupt than inflating the value of Internet stocks or exploiting obvious mortgage fraud. A-Rod won't quit because he believes he took no more drugs than the average major leaguer. He won't quit because we live in a society today in which no one passes judgment on how you earn your money. We only judge those without money. Infamy is a currency Belfort and Rodriguez both plan on milking.

Infamy is serving Dennis Rodman quite well. The Wolf (Belfort) is The Worm (Rodman), too. Addicted to living in a drug-and-alcohol-fueled haze, The Wolf, The Worm and their friends find it rather easy to ignore the consequences of their greed. For the right paycheck, Rodman and his band of retired basketball players would play an exhibition game in hell for the sole entertainment of Satan. A trip to North Korea at the behest of Kim Jong Un is as carefree as a trip to McDonald's to dine with Ronald.

Drugs and alcohol are the key to avoiding self-reflection. Modern technology has further enabled us. We plaster our bathrooms, bedrooms and hallways with skinny mirrors we call social media. Life is now recreational golf. Thanks to social media, we keep our own scores. Headphones and iPods allow us to set our fantasy worlds to music. "Beats by Dre" let us hear what we want. All of this is awesome for our self-esteem. It completely erodes our self-awareness.

Colin Kaepernick

Some moviegoers, critics and victims of Belfort's fraudulence can't stand "The Wolf of Wall Street" because Scorsese does not deal with the repercussions of Belfort's criminality and immorality. There are no victims in this movie. Belfort's trophy wife and first child are merely props. Nadine, his second wife, is a sex toy, a soft-porn blowup doll. There is no depth to her character or pain. The people Belfort and his flock fleece are nameless, faceless and irrelevant.

Like a commercially successful rap album and video, "The Wolf" has a single, narrow point of view. It's a celebration of Jordan Belfort. It's three hours of "hey, look at me." Belfort's lack of concern for how his path impacts the path of others is consistent with our current culture.

Jordan Belfort, "The Crooks of Wall Street" and many of us have the same values as the athletes and celebrities we vilify for their narcissism. They are a reflection of us. Their rejection of any responsibility for being their brother's keeper says something about all of us.

When I watched "The Wolf of Wall Street" and reflected on our society, I thought about the CNN report that asserted 60 percent of college basketball and football players read at a grade-school level. A high percentage of that 60 percent is poor African-American kids. You would think that many of the wealthy black professional athletes who escaped poverty would take personal responsibility in addressing and correcting this problem. You would think they would use their power and leverage to force the NBA, the NFL and the NCAA to use their resources to educate these young athletes long before they arrived on a college campus. You would think the people with the most intimate knowledge of what's driving this educational failure would work the hardest at fixing it.

But that's not our modern culture. Self-awareness, personal responsibility and collective sacrifice for the betterment of mankind are not in style.

Jay B, Jay Z and Tom Ford are in style. Narcissistic hedonism is in style.

In terms of self-awareness, Belfort reminds me of Colin Kaepernick, one of my favorite NFL players. Recently, an astute Seahawks fan put together a blog comparing the Instagram photos of Kaepernick and Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. The pictures define Wilson as someone aware of his power to positively influence the lives of others and Kaepernick as someone aware of his power to please himself. The pictures are harmless. Wilson is married and apparently responsible. Kaepernick is single and seemingly irresponsible. Wilson reminds me of my college roommate, Todd Finnell, a buttoned-down self-starter and honor roll student-athlete. Kaepernick reminds me of myself, a 20-year-old slacker. Thank God time allowed me to evolve and develop some of my old roommate's characteristics.

But our culture seemed very different in my youth. It wasn't as easy to lie to yourself, to lose yourself in the culture of "me, me, me." We lived in the real world, not in a cyber world of our own creation. I'm not trying to romanticize my youth or our past. The past is prologue. We planted the seeds for Generation Me. We created the environment for wolves to get richer publicly celebrating their immorality.