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The Ending Of The Wolf Of Wall Street Explained

The 2013 movie "The Wolf of Wall Street" takes viewers on a wild 3-hour journey through the extreme highs and lows of Jordan Belfort's (Leonardo DiCaprio) career as a corrupt stockbroker. The decadence and debauchery in the film might seem over the top, but it's based on a true story that Belfort recounted in his 2007 memoir of the same name. Terence Winter adapted the novel into a screenplay, with Martin Scorsese directing and DiCaprio starring in and producing the film.

On first viewing, a casual moviegoer might assume that "The Wolf of Wall Street" glorifies greed — after all, much of the movie's runtime is spent depicting the characters' self-indulgent behavior — but that couldn't be further from the truth. The film is meant to serve as a cautionary tale and to encourage viewers to think about how it reflects societal problems. Let's dive into the meaning of the film and its ending below, including Jordan's downfall, his life after prison, and DiCaprio and Scorsese's thoughts about it all.

What you need to remember about the plot of The Wolf of Wall Street

On Jordan's first day as a stockbroker on Wall Street, he realizes that smooth-talking is the fastest way to earn money. Unfortunately for him, it turns out to be Black Monday, so he loses his job and starts working at a much smaller brokerage company. He bends the facts to close sales and bring in a ton of money, then teams up with his neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) to start a new brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont. It starts off small, but quickly grows as Jordan recruits people and teaches them his shady sales techniques.

Stratton Oakmont becomes wildly successful and Jordan starts living a life of excess, spending exorbitant amounts of money on drugs and sex workers. He cheats on his wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) with Naomi (Margot Robbie) and later marries Naomi, but their relationship is just as chaotic as Jordan's career. The FBI and SEC investigate Stratton Oakmont's success, and FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) takes a particularly keen interest in Jordan's activities. Jordan hides his money illegally, and things spiral out of control, leading Denham to find enough evidence to arrest him. Jordan makes a deal with the FBI to incriminate his colleagues in exchange for a lessened sentence but ends up breaking the agreement. When the FBI finds out, they arrest him again and close Stratton Oakmont.

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How The Wolf of Wall Street ended

Despite scamming people for years, Jordan is only sentenced to three years in prison and Agent Denham looks pensive as he watches Jordan get taken into custody. While taking the subway home, Denham reads an article in the newspaper about the case: He spent years working on it only for it to be summarized in a few paragraphs that most people will likely forget the next day. He sets the paper down and appears deep in thought as he looks around the dreary subway car filled with similarly exhausted people in drab clothing.

The final scene takes place after Jordan has been released from prison. A host (played by the real Jordan Belfort) speaks to a large crowd at a sales seminar in Auckland, New Zealand. He welcomes Jordan, who comes out and tells one of the eager guests to try selling him a pen. The guest doesn't do a great job, and Jordan doesn't even let him finish his pitch before taking the pen away. He then has several others try selling him the pen, and they're all just as nervous and awkward as the first man. The camera slowly pans out, and we see the audience watching intently, hoping to learn how to become rich like Jordan.

The meaning behind Jordan's downfall

The film's ending conveys many themes, primarily that money corrupts people. Jordan starts off clean-cut and happily married, then descends into a life of obscenity as he accumulates wealth. His first wife, Teresa, had stayed with him through thick and thin, even offering to sell her wedding ring when he lost his job — but as soon as he gets rich, he starts taking her for granted. Since countless beautiful women are drawn to Jordan because of his money, he treats them as expendable. He blows money on sex workers and has an affair with Naomi, completely destroying his marriage with Teresa.

After becoming a millionaire, Jordan also develops a massive drug problem, indulging in so much Adderall, Quaaludes, and cocaine on a daily basis that it's a miracle he manages to survive. He's self-centered and has no problem lying to get what he wants, even if it brings others down. The power goes to his head, and his ego becomes extremely inflated. He breaks the already favorable deal with the FBI because he's convinced he will always come out on top. In the final scene, Jordan embarrasses several guests while giving a seminar. He's not scamming people on Wall Street anymore but has found a new way to exploit and mistreat people, and likely will continue to do so.

Analyzing what happened to Denham

People often don't get recognition, respect, or money for having good morals — in fact, usually the opposite is true. Agent Denham works hard to uncover the corruption at Stratton Oakmont, and despite earning very little money for his efforts, he still turns down a tempting bribe from Jordan in order to bring him to justice. In a perfect world, Denham would earn the public's admiration and respect for this, but no one really knows or cares about what he did. The case is featured in a newspaper article that people would either fail to notice or quickly forget about. Denham doesn't receive any financial reward for his upstanding morals either, so he has to take the subway home from the trial with other working-class people.

On the other hand, Jordan is a con artist who makes so much money that he can enjoy an extravagant, fun-filled lifestyle. He's essentially rewarded for having bad morals since he gets everything he wants — money, drugs, beautiful women, and power — in exchange for scamming people. Even after his crimes are exposed and he serves time in prison, people still respect him enough to attend his sales seminars, and it is his name that is remembered afterward.

The film's ending suggests we're all flawed

Society isn't always fair: The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and powerful people often aren't punished harshly for their crimes. It's easy to blame others for these problems, but the movie suggests that we all contribute to the flaws in our society. In fact, throughout the film, Jordan breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly — challenging us and perhaps the passive part we have to play in individuals like him being able to get away with their crimes. Jordan receives barely more than a slap on the wrist after committing crimes for years on end, and the public doesn't seem to care. If they did, they would talk about how unfair the ruling was, organize protests, and try to change the system so that criminals are punished fairly for their crimes. Instead, they — like us as the audience — passively accept Jordan's sentence, which helps enforce the standard of what is considered fair in society.

After all is said and done, Jordan ends up being more successful than Agent Denham, with tons of people paying to learn his corrupt sales strategies while Denham remains unrewarded for his integrity. No one is forcing this to happen — people would just rather focus on making money than doing something that would create a fairer society. This puts everyone at fault for society's problems.

The ending warns about the dangers of prioritizing wealth

We all have a limited amount of time and energy to spend, so we have to prioritize what matters most to us. "The Wolf of Wall Street" shows us that many people — like Jordan and the others at Stratton Oakmont — choose to prioritize earning money over everything else in their lives. This is detrimental to their well-being in many ways since it means they can't spend as much time on self-improvement. Doing inner work takes a lot of effort since it requires taking an honest look at yourself and learning from past mistakes. It's not always fun, which is why the characters in the film would rather focus on getting rich and spending their money in self-indulgent ways.

Their actions have a negative impact on their lives, and in turn, those around them. At one point, Jordan endangers himself, Donnie, and their wives while trying to access money that he hid illegally in Switzerland. He's so fixated on greed and covering his own back that he doesn't consider the safety and happiness of the people closest to him. This theme can be translated to real life since most people prioritize money over self-growth. It's understandable to a certain extent since people need to pay their bills, but there are definitely downsides to obsessing over money.

Why the characters changed so drastically

People often say it's important to be yourself, but the reality is that change is unavoidable in life. One key takeaway from the film is that sometimes people have to change in order to reach their goals. Jordan wants to become a millionaire, so he chooses to become more dishonest. Donnie is Jordan's loyal friend for most of the film, but he doesn't want to get arrested for his crimes, so he chooses to rat Jordan out to the FBI in exchange for a less severe punishment.

Both of these characters change throughout the movie as they work towards their personal goals. Whether they change for better or worse is up to the viewer to decide, but through their journeys, Martin Scorsese suggests that we all have to decide the extent we're willing to change in order to get what we want. Is getting rich worth taking advantage of other people? Is it right or wrong to tell the authorities about crimes a close friend has committed? Everyone has choices to make in life, and sometimes those choices lead to big changes in ourselves.

The film explores greed and corruption

Everyone is susceptible to getting corrupted by greed — even those who seem perfectly fine having just enough money to get by. While talking to Jordan, Agent Denham admits that at one point in the past, he tried getting his broker's license. Jordan asks him if he ever wonders what might have happened if he continued pursuing that route, to which Denham replies, "When I'm riding home on the subway . . . [and] I'm wearing the same suit three days in a row, yeah you bet I do. I've thought about it before. Who wouldn't, right?"

This shows us that even Denham — who chose a career that values integrity over accumulating wealth — is susceptible to greed, and he could've ended up on a similar journey to Jordan had he given in. It is clearly a decision that plays on his mind as well, as he still thinks about how much better his life would be if he were rich. Later during their conversation, Jordan slyly offers Denham a bribe, which Denham turns down because he's determined to expose the corruption at Stratton Oakmont. At the end of the movie, when Denham is taking the subway home after Jordan is convicted, he appears to be contemplating what life would be like if he had accepted the bribe. His desire to become rich still hasn't gone away: Greed and excess are temptations he will always have to resist, as most of us can probably relate to.

DiCaprio said the movie is an analysis of greed and hedonism

During an interview with Deadline in 2013, Leonardo DiCaprio shared his take on the film and what messages it was meant to convey. Some viewers may have thought the movie glorified greed and immorality, but he said those people completely misunderstood it. He explained that he, Martin Scorsese, and screenwriter Terence Winter "very consciously wanted this to be an analysis of the temptation and intoxication of the world of money and indulgence and hedonism." He continued, "We wanted to take the audience on that journey, and so we don't ever see the wake of that destruction until the very end, where they implode. It was a very conscious decision on our part, so the experience would be almost like taking a drug."

DiCaprio went on to say that this way of telling the story allowed viewers to become immersed in the film and understand why the characters wanted to live such a decadent lifestyle. He explained that there are many people like Jordan in our society, and in a way, there's a little bit of Jordan in us all. Because of that, the film is both a cautionary tale and an exploration of human nature.

Scorsese wanted the film to reflect issues in society

During a 2014 interview with Deadline, Martin Scorsese explained that the film was intended to make people think about how our individual mindsets — and in turn our culture and society — encourage hedonistic behavior like Jordan's. He went on to say that people act in immoral ways because our culture values money over everything. Many movies present these issues, then resolve them by punishing the greedy main characters. This makes viewers feel like they've done their part to acknowledge and resolve the problems in real life, but that actually isn't the case, which is why Scorsese approached this film in a different way.

"I didn't want [viewers] to be able to think problem solved, and forget about it. I wanted them to feel like they'd been slapped into recognizing that this behavior has been encouraged in this country, and that it affects business and the world, and everything down to our children and how they're going to live, and their values in the future."

Scorsese said that even though Jordan served a light sentence in jail, it was still a sentence, while the masses who continuously allow people like Jordan to thrive remain unpunished. This doesn't mean that the public should be condemned for letting this happen, it just means that we're all human and all have a bit of darkness in us.

There was an alternate ending

Originally, there was an alternate ending involving Jordan's ex-wife Teresa that would've shed new light on him. "I don't know if I'm allowed to say this — there used to be a different ending," Cristin Milioti confirmed in 2014 (via Vulture). "I shot a lot of the stuff in the very beginning and I remember the ending had something to do with me coming back. Like, you never saw me, but it was about making it right for that character."

She explained that Teresa was going to get indicted, but Jordan decided that he didn't want to hurt her again. This would've shown that Jordan felt guilty and remorseful about how he'd wronged Teresa in the past, which the filmmakers ultimately decided against. Instead of resolving that storyline in a traditional way like many movies would have done, Martin Scorsese didn't have Jordan realize his past mistakes and grow from them. Instead, Jordan continued barreling forward and hurting people because he was so blinded by greed and self-indulgence.