Director Martin Scorsese's film The Wolf of Wall Street is a visual feast that appeals to the senses. Fast cars, luxury yachts, drugs, women: it is a three-hour movie but not one of those where you keep looking at your watch. There is simply no time, as scenes quickly shift from watching disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort crashing his prized Ferrari while high on Quaaludes to convincing a female employee to shave her head in exchange for breast implants and landing his helicopter with one eye shut during a massive drug binge.
The imagery helps the movie play out better than Belfort's 2007 memoir, in which his smug take on his exploits during the 1990s comes across as a nauseating exercise of listing how many hookers he screwed and how many lines of coke he consumed.
Scorsese uses Belfort's story to tell a tale of the corrupting power of money. However, as Americans would say, the acclaimed director has drunk the Kool-Aid that Belfort is selling.
Scorsese runs Belfort's line that while engaging in a classic 'pump and dump' share scam, he only targeted the richest 1 per cent of Americans. Belfort and his cronies would offer some quality blue-chip stocks and then push so-called ‘penny dreadfuls’, sending those share prices soaring and selling their own shareholding at a peak, all while collecting a 50 per cent commission on trades.
Despite the movie's long run-time, there is no time dedicated to the almost 3400 investors that Belfort's firm Stratton Oakmont ripped off to the tune of more than $US300 million.
Belfort says he is a changed man since being released from prison in 2006, having spent just 28 months of a reduced 42-month sentence he was handed for ratting out two dozen of his co-conspirators.
But it seems that 'the wolf' remains perpetually dressed in the proverbial sheep's clothing.
Prosecutors say he has paid only $US11.6 million of the $US110 million he owes as restitution for a securities fraud and money laundering conviction.
Court records show that Belfort received $US940,500 for the movie rights to his two books, meaning the 1500 investors on the US government's trustee victim list should get a slice of those proceeds at least.
Belfort seems slightly annoyed and bewildered that he faces "so much distrust" from people about his motives and has offered to donate all the money made from the sale of his book rights to his victims. While Belfort sits in his Manhattan Beach, California mansion, driving his Mercedes and earning five-figure sums for his motivational speeches – that is yet to happen.
The Wolf of Wall Street is not the story of Belfort’s victims. Nor is it the story of the families conned by their high-flying husbands and fathers into believing that the practices they were engaging in at Stratton Oakmont were legitimate.
Christina McDowell, formerly Christina Prousalis, the daughter of former Stratton Oakmont stockbroker Tom Prousalis, writes a powerful open letter telling that story.
McDowell says she was fooled time and again by her father and has attacked Scorsese for making a film that glamorises a lifestyle that brought America to its knees.
“Your film is 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 scandals,” she writes. “I urge each and every human being in America NOT to support this film, because if you do, you're simply continuing to feed the Wolves of Wall Street.
“Quick update on Dad: He is now doing business with the Albanian government and, rumour has it, is married to a 30-year-old Albanian translator - they always, always land on their feet,” she said.
Ken Minor is one of those thousands of investors who didn’t land on his feet, saying the experience “hurt me pretty bad”.
Far from being among the richest 1 per cent of Americans, Minor had to draw on a home equity line of credit to buy stocks and is yet to repay that debt.
“I’m not a rich guy,” the California real estate appraiser told the New York Times. “And I’ve been paying for it ever since.”
John Kilroy, a Pizza Hut franchisee from Ohio, has received very little by way of restitution since he lost an “upsetting” amount of money to Stratton Oakmont’s dodgy traders.
"Hopefully, (Belfort will) make a few more movies, and I'll get a cheque every year," he told Barrons. "But I'm not going to hold my breath."
Louis E. Dequine III says his father lost a quarter of a million dollars after being cold-called by Stratton Oakmont. He later suffered a stroke which his son attributes to the stresses caused by losing so much money.
Dianne Nygaard, a lawyer who once represented some of Stratton Oakmont’s victims, said Belfort still cannot be trusted.
“No one should consider him trustworthy. He is the consummate con man, winning the confidence of the naive, the trusting and the greedy by calculatedly selling people what they wanted to believe.”
The story of Belfort’s victims is not as sexy as watching Leonardo DiCaprio snort cocaine off a prostitute’s breasts, but their stories are much more important.
Hopefully, amid the red carpets, celebrity interviews and endless promotion as The Wolf of Wall Street hits Australian cinemas on January 23, those stories have a chance to be heard.
Mathew Murphy is a Walkley Award winning journalist based in New York.