LeonardO DiCaprio has defended his new film against accusations that it glamourises financial crime.
The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of Jordan Belfort, the disgraced New York stockbroker who amassed a $100m personal fortune before being jailed for money laundering and securities fraud.
The Hollywood treatment highlights the fast cars, private jets, luxury yachts and drug-fuelled sex parties of Belfort’s hedonistic lifestyle. But Mr DiCaprio has insisted the star-studded film has a serious message.
“He is really a reflection of our culture right now,” the 39-year-old actor told the BBC.
“This film is focused on Jordan’s life, but he represents something much bigger.”
He said it was important to submerge the audience in Belfort’s world and “talk about the darker nature of who these people are”.
Mr DiCaprio added: “We wanted people to understand what this lifestyle was like and how people can get so easily tempted by power and greed.”
Belfort achieved notoriety as the entrepreneurial head of Stratton Oakmont, a Long Island brokerage with a reputation for hard sales tactics.
The firm made millions of dollars by taking companies public during the 1990s.
But investigators exposed boiler-room practices and prosecuted the chairman. Belfort pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 22 months in prison.
Joel Cohen, a prosecutor in the case against Belfort, told the BBC that many of Stratton Oakmont’s victims invested 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,” he said.
Mr DiCaprio insisted that the likes of Belfort “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”.
He said: “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.”
The film, which is directed by Martin Scorsese, has been attacked for glorifying greed.
In an open letter to LA Weekly, Christina McDowell, the daughter of a Belfort associate, described The Wolf of Wall Street as “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 scan- dals”.
Dr Iain Clacher, associate professor of finance and economics at Leeds University Business School, pointed out that many films glamourise crime. “Some of them end in tragedy, some of them end with a great escape and others end with more of the same,” he said.
A spokesman for the Financial Conduct Authority said people who engage in financial crime risk going to prison. He added: “Prison is not a very glamorous place to be.”
Financial crime is on the rise. In the year ending June 2013, police in England and Wales recorded 230,335 fraud offences, equivalent to four per 1,000 people. This represents an increase of 21 per cent on the previous year and a rise of 59 per cent on 2007-08.
Official statisticians have identified fraud as an important gap in crime statistics.
They say it is difficult to measure because it is a deceptive crime and often targeted at organisations rather than individuals. The courts secured 16,437 convictions in 2012.
Meanwhile, Belfort has reinvented himself as a motivational speaker since his release from prison. He visited Leeds in 2010 on his speaking tour, Breakthrough to Extreme Wealth and Success.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, he said: “I hurt people and I was running that strategy and showing people how to be very successful without ethics. I cannot change the mistakes of the past but I can learn from them.
“My goal is to try to teach people to become successful without sacrificing integrity and ethics. I made it in the real world and failed in the real world.”
Mr Belfort claimed that making lots of money and maintaining values are not mutually exclusive.
“I have been there and done that and made mistakes. I have been there and realised that essentially true wealth cannot be achieved slashing and burning and neglecting the people you love,” he told the Yorkshire Post.
n The Wolf of Wall Street premiered on Thursday and is on general release from January 17.