Jordan Belfort’s wife was right: there is no such thing as bad publicity. Belfort, you should know by now, is the self-styled Wolf of Wall Street in Martin Scorsese’s tale of lust, drugs and greed.
A real-life penny stock pusher with an oversized ego, he eventually went to jail for running “boiler room” share scams, then on to write his memoir. Now he has been catapulted to fame thanks to Scorsese and to some brilliant acting by Leonardo DiCaprio. At a time when we are still reeling from a global financial crisis, old villains are being transformed into onscreen heroes.
I am the journalist who in the movie wrote the 1991 ‘hatchet job’ on Belfort and his respectably named but disreputable Stratton Oakmont outfit. My character – I was a Forbes reporter when I wrote the profile – gets a few seconds’ play, followed by a scene in which Belfort is infuriated by my story.
I had described him as sounding like a twisted version of Robin Hood who takes from the rich and gives to himself and his merry band of brokers. That was rather charitable since he was also probably fleecing widows and orphans.
In the film, his wife tries to calm him down, telling him to look on the bright side. A leading publication had taken notice of him, after all. Sure enough, greedy young brokers who read how one recruit could earn $100,000 in commissions in one month lined up for jobs at Stratton.
The article is a detail compared with the celebrity bestowed by Hollywood. With Oscars potentially in the offing, I suspect the redeemed Belfort’s new business – he is now a motivational speaker who sells something called “the straight line persuasion system” – is set for a spectacular ride.
He might have been a leading player in the world of boiler rooms, which were a major nuisance to regulators in the 1990s. Compared with the fraudsters of recent times, though, he is a small fish.
Watching the film, in fact, makes me wonder about the fate of the villainous types that my Financial Times colleagues now write about. Will they, too, one day make the shift to the silver screen with stories that play down their evil deeds?
True, The Wolf of Wall Street is mostly based on a real account of Belfort’s life. But it also includes some fiction. The name of the movie, for example, is the title of his book, but not one given to him at the time by Forbes or anyone else I know of.
There was also far less business glamour to Belfort and Stratton than the film suggests. The company was based in suburban Long Island, not Wall Street. And Belfort had started out as a meat and seafood salesman before he went bankrupt and switched to stocks. He seems to have a delusional streak. He had agreed to an interview back then, apparently expecting the article to portray him as a Wall Street mogul.
As the Securities and Exchange Commission was already investigating Stratton, I assumed the boiler room would soon be out of business. It would take until 1997, however, for it to be closed down.
Belfort later served 22 months in jail for securities fraud and money laundering. He was ordered to pay $US110 million in restitution to investors. Belfort has since been accused of not fulfilling his obligations, but a move to hold him in default of his payments to victims was withdrawn in October last year amid attempts to resolve the dispute.
The film, however, has little time for Belfort’s victims. Although not quite a glorification of its subject, it is not an indictment. Viewers are more likely to be turned off by the debauchery (we could have used half an hour less of that) than his financial fraud.
Belfort is clearly pleased with the product, splashing promotions of the film all over his website which, unsurprisingly, depicts him as a star. He is described as having once run “the most dynamic and successful sales organisations in Wall Street history” before succumbing to “some of the traps of the high-flying Wall Street lifestyle”. Taking “invaluable lessons from the mistakes he made”, Belfort has learnt that you need ethics in business and has re-emerged in motivational speaking as “a globally recognised potent force behind extraordinary business success”. Perhaps a sequel is in the making.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014.