Leonardo DiCaprio says that his own experiences growing up in a drug and crime-ridden area of Los Angeles prepared him for his controversial role in the Oscar-nominated film, The Wolf of Wall Street. The film portrays the rise and fall of convicted Wall Street swindler Jordan Belfort, and it has been criticized for glorifying the exploits of a criminal whose schemes badly damaged the lives of thousands of victims who fell victim to his “pump and dump” operation.
But Leonardo DiCaprio, who has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the film, says that he understands what motivates a character like Belfort, and that’s what he was trying to portray in the film.
“Who am I to talk about this?” DiCaprio told The Los Angeles Times, after driving through a now-suburbanized district of Hollywood. “It goes back to that neighborhood. It came from the fact that I grew up very poor and I got to see the other side of the spectrum.”
DiCaprio — who grabbed a fourth Oscar nomination for his role — was referring to the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue, in the eastern part of Hollywood where he spent the first nine years of his life. Now a home to a shopping mall, a Ralph’s Supermarket and even a Jamba Juice, when Leonardo DiCaprio was a kid, he says, the then-seedy neighborhood was rife with drug addicts and prostitutes who paraded their wares openly.
“It really was like Taxi Driver in a lot of ways,” DiCaprio said, referring to the classic 1976 film — directed by Martin Scorsese, also director of The Wolf of Wall Street — which depicted a hellish view of a depraved New York City.
In real life, Jordan Belfort’s “pump and dump” con game involved touting “penny stocks” to customers without much money to invest. Such stocks are cheap to buy for a reason. They are usually worthless. But Belfort and his underlings regaled the victims with carefully scripted pitches designed to exploit their naivete and dreams of getting rich quick.
In reality, the customers were simply being used to fraudulently drive up the price of the stock, most of which was controlled by Belfort and his co-conspirators. Then the real “Wolf of Wall Street” would unload the valueless stock on the market, pocket a huge windfall and leave their usually lower-middle-class victims saddled with crippling losses.
“At the end of the day, it was all about pretty much blatant fraud,” Joel M. Cohen, a former prosecutor who took Belfort to trial, told The New York Times. “It was about pushing stock to unsuspecting investors with all kinds of hard-sell tactics to get people to buy stuff that wasn’t suitable for them.”
Even a lawyer who once represented Belfort, Ira L. Sorkin, criticized the Oscar-contending Wolf of Wall Street film for its distortion of Belfort’s real-life crimes.
“The movie did not discuss two things: One, how they went about doing it. And, of course, the suffering of the victims,” Sorkin said. “I think the movie is wrong, also. The young brokers knew what was going on. There were scripts.”
The movie has also been criticized for its depiction of Belfort’s incessant indulgence in drugs and sex as nothing but an endless party with no consequences. And in fact, according to The Guardian, the upcoming DVD release of The Wolf of Wall Street will feature a four-hour version of the film — which in theaters was three hours long — giving Leonardo Di Caprio even more sex and drugs on screen.