The new Martin Scorsese film Wolf of Wall Street is particularly handy if you need to figure out how to open the door to your Lamborghini after you’ve been severely impaired by vintage Quaaludes. Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, has just taken three very strong, very expired sedatives. He was only a few hundred yards from his mansion, but why wait it out if you’ve got a fast car? The trick is to get a Lamborghini with jack-knife doors and low clearance, so that when you writhe and roll on the ground you can still kick the door upwards and crawl in. And if you drive slowly, you’ll miraculously arrive at your mansion without causing any harm.
Or so he thought. When Belfort woke up from his drug daze, he was greeted by police officers who arrested him for causing seven different accidents that he knew nothing about.
The story comes from the real Jordan Belfort’s 2007 “memoir,” which bears the same name as the film. (Belfort wrote a sequel as well, Catching the Wolf of Wall Street.) The set piece is really very funny, a Chaplin slapstick for the 1 percent. The scene is lifted almost verbatim, but a few details peel off from reality—the fact that the car was not a Lamborghini but a Mercedes matters not at all, but Belfort actually sent someone to the hospital in a head-on collision. In fact, the entire movie is rather faithfully adapted in the same way, but the episode exposes the problem of a narrator like Belfort. How can you trust a man who couldn’t observe his own life accurately as he lived it? What you see is what Belfort claims is true, and he’s a very unreliable narrator, even in his own story. Especially in his own story.
That’s because the Jordan Belfort of the memoirs comes off as a delusional, vulgar fraud. In the prologue he apologizes for his crimes, but the rest of the book, he says, will be a “reconstruction,” one that’s played out in a “glib,” “self-serving,” and “despicable voice.” He’s absolutely right. He’s belligerent, obnoxious, and delights in making fun of Japanese accents and graphically describing all sorts of sexual depravity with prostitutes and even a 17-year-old sales assistant. At the start of the book he is greeted, on his first day of work at the Wall Street brokerage L.F. Rothschild, by a boss who says, “You’re lower than pond scum.” Oh, how right you are.
It is 1987, and Belfort, a young man from Queens, has been hired to cold call prospective investors—500 of them a day, as the boss demands, the first sign that this would be a world where everyone exaggerates. Belfort claims that an investor named Mark Hanna told him that the ticket to success was in jerking off, cocaine, and hookers—and also to make your customer reinvest his winnings so you get the commission. A man with such charming unsolicited advice could only be played by a Matthew McConaughey who has thrown all caution to the wacky wind, and we’re sad to learn that soon the stock market crash of 1987 wiped out the entire firm, and McConaughey’s screen time with it, a loss that the film would never recover from.
Belfort soon found a job hawking pink sheets, or penny stocks. The commissions were great, and he was so good at it that he recruited his friend Danny Porush (changed to Donnie Azoff in the film, and played by Jonah Hill) to found their own brokerage firm, which they called Stratton Oakmont. He had a number of nicknames, like Gordon Gekko, his hero, and Don Corleone. His favorite was the Wolf of Wall Street, although Stratton Oakmont wasn’t on Wall Street…it was in Long Island. And the nom de plume wasn’t featured on the cover of Forbes magazine, although reporter Roula Khalaf did do an article on him, calling him “a twisted version of Robin Hood, who robs from the rich and gives to himself and his merry band of brokers.”
Stratton Oakmont was a classic boiler room—it even inspired a 2000 movie called Boiler Room. It employed more than 1,000 brokers at its peak in the 1990s, and Belfort would stand in front of his followers with mic in hand and give speeches like a cult leader. The con was that Belfort and Porush would own shares of risky companies that were going public or that they were taking public, and they had their brokers aggressively sell the stock to inflate the price. They would then sell their shares and make a nice profit, and as the stock collapsed, the investors would be left with nothing. Which is exactly what they did when they took the shoe company of Steve Madden, a childhood friend of Porush’s, public. This was called “pump and dump,” and very illegal. They made about $23 million in two hours from the deal, and all three of them, including Madden, went to jail for it.
With the money came the filth, and the contemptuous lewdness you see in the film are based on actual claims in the book. If all of it was true, Stratford Oakmont must have had some of the most awkward water-cooler talks in corporate history. How did you like yesterday’s midget-tossing competition? It happened, according to Belfort’s memoir. A female employee might really have let them shave off her blonde hair for $10,000, which she used to pay for her D-cup breast implants, says the book. The firm did seem to have charged prostitutes on the corporate credit card, and in one particularly unsavory passage Belfort “classified” them into Blue Chips, NASDAQs, and Pink Sheets. They even wrote them off on their taxes. “Tits and Ass!” he writes, employing one of his hundreds of exclamation marks.
He boasted of doing so much drugs that he had enough “running through my circulatory system to sedate Guatemala.” Apparently he did almost crash his helicopter in his yard, flying it high on Quaaludes. He boasted of “mountains” of cocaine, and we are never far from being reminded of the excess, as Scorsese dutifully presents to us slow-motion ballets of pills bouncing on the ground, drinks spilled everywhere (alcohol is mostly there just to wash down the Quaaludes), and clouds of coke billowing. The excess is never only hinted at—it must be coupled with as many self-important voiceovers as allowable, as long a bullying running time as tolerable.
All of which becomes tiring to watch. And if the film is too much for you, the books will make you feel altogether disgusting. Belfort’s life was despicable in so many ostentatious ways, and the sex, drugs, mansions, yachts (the one originally owned by Coco Chanel sunk off the coast of Italy when Belfort demanded to sail through a storm), and trophy wife whom he called the Duchess (Nadine’s name was changed to Naomi in the film) were crimes against good taste. It is his real crimes that he should atone for, and both film and books are so whipped into exuberance that there’s no room to know whether Belfort really feels sorry about it all.
What he did was absolutely awful. He laundered money into Swiss banks and used his mother-in-law and her sister to traffic cash into the country. He had mob ties, and conned not only the companies that he helped make worthless, but also his own brokers. And he swindled hundreds of millions of dollars of people’s life savings.
In 1994, Stratton Oakmont agreed to pay a $2.5 million fine to the SEC in order to settle a civil securities fraud case, with Belfort, Porush, and another partner, Kenneth Greene, paying $100,000 each. It’s estimated that Belfort was worth about $200 million at his peak. He was finally arrested in 1998 for securities fraud and money laundering. He was convicted in 2003, and after cooperating with the FBI and ratting out his friends, he received a 4-year sentence, but served only 22 months in a California federal prison. His cellmate was Tommy Chong, one half of “Cheech and Chong,” who was serving 9 months in jail for selling bongs. And Belfort was ordered to repay $110 million to a victim compensation fund, but the U.S. Attorney’s office says that he has paid less than $12 million in restitution, and has reneged on his agreement to fork over 50 percent of his income toward the fund.
It was Chong who encouraged him to write a book after laughing at his stories, and Belfort said he read Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and modeled his writing after Hunter S. Thompson as well. (No wonder, all those exclamations!) His books ended up netting him an advance from Random House of more than $1 million, and he also received more than another $1 million from the film rights. On top of all that, in perhaps his greatest performance yet, he has refashioned himself as a motivational speaker who gets paid sometimes more than $30,000 a speech. He’s still putting on a show. (Porush also went to prison, and now runs a medical supply company out of Florida and lives in a $4 million mansion and drives a Rolls-Royce convertible, according to The New York Post.)
What you see is what Belfort claims is true, and he’s a very unreliable narrator, even in his own story. Especially in his own story.
The problem with The Wolf of Wall Street is that the self-fashioned wolf was nowhere near the real Wall Street. But the film and the books make Belfort seem like a much bigger deal than he was, whereas he was really a relatively small fry who was just way too brash with his ridiculous antics, setting himself up as an easy target. Belfort and his associates in The Wolf of Wall Street come off as fools who made a lot of money without being smart at all. They just needed to go to unscrupulous lengths. The Wolf of Wall Street can’t really show you what the boiler-room, pump-and-dump era of Wall Street was like, because it is based on a cooked up, doped up, delusional exaggeration of reality. His book is a caricature that acknowledges it’s a caricature, but goes on to ignore remorse and suffering for hundreds of pages. Like the woman he sent to the hospital in the car crash, Belfort hardly ever stopped to notice what he did to unwitting, innocent victims.
That Scorsese didn’t recognize the charlatan that Belfort is is a shame—or perhaps he simply wanted to put Belfort’s machismo talk into the mouth of DiCaprio, as he did for Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino. As a result, The Wolf of Wall Street is devilishly entertaining and exquisitely controlled, just as those classics were. But Scorsese used to be interested in the spiritually charged moral conflicts of people like Travis Bickle, who said, “I’m God’s lonely man.” You can't imagine those words being spoken by the hectoring Belfort.
Come to think of it, it’s rather an achievement that Belfort is even more vulgar than Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, or more conniving than Jimmy Conway and Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas. The problem is, I’m not sure he has much of an inner state beyond the “remorse” that he has to put up in order to continue to make his millions. He is quite a bundle of stimulus and reflex, with no reflection. He is a beast, a real wolf in sheep’s clothing.