We wrap up our Oscar editions of the Doc Option column with this double-feature selection. At first thought, the obvious choice for a nonfiction counterpart to The Wolf of Wall Street is Inside Job, the Oscar-winning chronicle of the events that led to the near-ruination of our economy. But while that film does indeed allude to some of the Wall Street debauchery that’s seen in full in Wolf, there’s actually a much lesser-known doc that makes for a better pairing.
Marc Dreier enjoyed the good life. While he might be unlike Jordan Belfort in that he did not battle frightening drug addictions or buy prostitutes by the planeload, he put himself at the very top of the social ladder. A lawyer by trade who dealt mainly in bankruptcies and corporate litigation, he was a friend to celebrities and an owner of many glitzy and glamorous properties. And all he had to do to get this wealth was orchestrate hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of investment fraud through a massive Ponzi scheme. So in that way, he is quite similar to Belfort.
But while Belfort got off comparatively lightly for his transgressions, Dreier was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Why is this? Especially considering that so many Wall Street villains who did even worse things have gotten away with it scott free? To hear Dreier tell it, he’s at least partially a scapegoat. But then, to hear Dreier tell it, he’s not all that bad a guy at all. That’s the big overlap between Unraveled and The Wolf of Wall Street — both movies are told from the point of view of their morally questionable (to put it lightly) main characters.
The documentary was shot in 2009, as Dreier was stewing in house arrest, preparing to go to jail. That living situation leaves a lot of room for introspection. Unlike Belfort, Dreier seems to be at least semi-cognizant that what he’s done was wrong. But he hedges his language at every point. The strongest condemnation he can ever give himself is that he “strayed down the wrong path” or some similar mealy-mouthed euphemism. Like in Wolf, what the protagonists don’t admit to is just as telling as what they do. Watching Dreier twist his way out of all moral responsibility is far more important and interesting than hearing him explain the mechanics of his illegal activities.
In the movie’s peak moment, Dreier speculates that, given the opportunity, most people would do the same things that he did. His philosophy is bleak: people are generally held back by a lack of means, not by real convictions. And given the rampancy of criminality or just downright sociopathy in our economic institutions, this theory seems chillingly plausible. Another parallel to Wolf comes from Dreier’s explanation of why he continued to chase after money, even once he had more than he could ever spend in a lifetime. After a while, he was living a lifestyle that seemed appropriate for his wealth, rather than accumulating wealth to live a better lifestyle. Money, Belfort tells us in one of the first scenes of Wolf, is the most powerful drug of all.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a star-studded, blockbuster production. Unraveled is a small film, mostly confined to an apartment, breaking those boundaries with illustrated stills or photographs. But they are both of a kind, and seeing one enriches the experience of the other. If we are to stop the Jordan Belforts and Marc Dreiers of the world, we need to understand what makes them tick.