Jordan Belfort, the Wolf of Wall Street

13 Jan

Jordan Belfort is the subject of the critically acclaimed new Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street. I interviewed him in October 2010; this piece was published in the now defunct site Newstime. 

Jordan Belfort tells good stories. The best one is about how he sunk his 170 foot yacht in the Mediterranean while high on drugs. The man who had everything and then lost everything is in South Africa to give motivational talks and sales training, and as his talk draws to a close, he ends it on a high note.

He’s standing in front of an audience of around 300 high-powered businesspeople at Summer Place. There’s plenty of money here, based on what’s parked outside. John Vlismas, the MC, chuckles about the obvious: how appropriate it is that Belfort is speaking here, in a venue that once belong to a man known for his rather cavalier attitude to ethical business practices.

Ghosts of other great South African swindlers linger in the collective memory: Brett Kebble, J Arthur Brown, Adriaan Niewoudt, the brains behind the Kubus scam. There’s Greg Blank, who did his time and is back leading his racehorses into the winner’s circle. Barry Tannenbaum, who is all the way on the other side of the world, on the Gold Coast, holding tight as he escapes justice. I’m reminded of Tannenbaum when I watch YouTube videos of Belfort presenting to Virgin Australia. South African white-collar criminals seem to like it in Australia; so many of them go there.

The story of how he sunk the boat, which once belonged to Coco Chanel, has the audience riveted. Restless and high on quaaludes – which we know as Mandrax – he insisted on sailing out into bad weather. The yacht was capsized by a huge wave and the passengers and crew had to be rescued by the Italian Navy. In all of the chaos – it must have resembled a scene from Titanic – all he could think of was getting his supply of ludes. His wife – “The Duchess’ – later divorced him.

He tells this story with considerable brio, and I’m surprised to discover later that he has had terrible insomnia all week and he was desperately tired when he did this talk. He has a lot of trouble with sleeping.

Before the tale of the sinking of the yacht, there is the story of how he became successful, told in a typical New Yoik twang. It starts off in Queens, where he was born to a middle class family. There’s the newspaper route, then selling ice creams to beachgoers (he makes a fortune). His mother wants him to become a doctor though, so he chooses dentistry, reckoning that it’ll make him rich. On his first day of class, he is told that it won’t, so he leaves and starts a business selling meat door to door. In between he gets a biology degree, though he doesn’t dwell on that. The meat business does well and then he goes bankrupt. So he goes into Wall Street and finds the real money. By the age of 25 he’s a multimillionaire with a gift for motivating others to sell sell sell from a brokerage based, not in Manhattan, but on Long Island. In the late 90s he was indicted and later spent 22 months in jail. Half of everything he earns has to go to paying back the investors who lost money with his stockbroking outfit, Stratton Oakmont.

He explains the drugs to the audience. The quaaludes made him sleep, so he balanced them with cocaine. The cocaine made him anxious, so he balanced that with Xanax and so it went on – morphine, sleeping pills – until he was a walking pharmacy. He’s been asked how it’s possible that he still looks so good, and he’s tanned and impeccable in his black shirt and suit. He’s better looking in real life than he is in the photographs I Google.

For years Belfort lived a life of astonishing opulence: private jets, designer clothes, villas around the world. Once he flew a helicopter with one eye open because he was so high (clearly, he managed to survive that one). He does not go into much detail about why he was jailed, for stock manipulation over seven years and costing investors millions of dollars A hundred million, to be precise, all of which he has to pay back. 90% of what he was doing was ethical, he tells the audience. He focuses the talk instead on how he shared a cell with Cheech of Cheech and Chong fame. It was his cellmate who encouraged him to write down his experiences. Two bestsellers and a forthcoming movie starring Leonardo diCaprio later, it appears to have been good advice.

Drugs aside, Belfort lived the kind of life many of us fantasise about. Does he ever miss his old life? I ask. We’re talking over the phone the next day while he’s driven from one appointment to another. “I still live a very nice life,” he says. There are no private jets now but  “I seldom miss the opulence.”

He mentions his trip to see an entirely different side of South Africa. After the talk to the business mavens at Summer Place, he is taken to Diepsloot  – his pronunciation is pretty good for an American –  to give a talk to a group of underprivileged teenagers. This is part of the outreach work done by Ma Afrika Tikkun, the charity to which some of the proceeds of this tour will go. “I felt more alive when I was speaking to those kids,” he tells me.

This is this the first time he has been to a country with such huge divides between rich and poor.  He admits to feeling overwhelmed – “I don’t have a solution for it” – but he’ll be back in January to get more involved.

There is the persistent, hovering question of inequality. How does he feel about the fact that there are a few people with so much, and billions with so little? It’s important not to begrudge money, he says. “Money is a good thing.” “There’s no amount of poverty in my life that could make somebody rich. There’s no amount of sadness in my life that could make somebody happy.  There’s no amount of sickness in my life that can make somebody well.”

It’s a good speech, recited without hesitation. It seems spontaneous; this man has the gift of the gab, as they say.

“How do you stop a culture of unethical behaviour?” I ask, thinking of the corruption that infects South Africa – not just government, but occasionally business too. His advice is simple. “Don’t ever take that first step.” Did he convince himself that what he was doing was ok? So many white-collar criminals tell themselves that they’re not really stealing.  He disagrees. “I always knew what I was doing wrong. But I thought everyone else is doing I too. There was that rationalization.” If companies want to ensure a culture of ethical behaviour, it has to come from senior management, and the message has to be repeated often. “What we say to people once in a while has little impact. You have to say it to them every day. It comes from the top down.”

“If I’d been ethical I’d be worth 4, 5 billion dollars by now,” he tells the crowd at Summer Place. This, I think, is what will strike home most forcefully: the notion that you can create more wealth by doing the right thing.

He talks about the “inner game”. Motivation by itself is not enough, he says. It must be guided by strategy. “If your inner game is a mess it’s hard to be successful. Inner game and strategy. You need both sides of the equation.”

In a strange coincidence, the man I sit next to at Summer Place is Ryan Gibson, a Canadian expat I had met a month before. He had organized South Africa’s largest ever tweet-up, a social event arranged via Twitter, and it’s something of a surprise to see him again. He explains that his best friend’s sister was married to Jordan Belfort; for years, he heard stories about Belfort’s latest escapades, but never met him. He reflects on the irony: “If I weren’t in South Africa right now I’d never have met him.”

Jordan Belfort could be a character from Great Gatsby, with his lavish past life and strange, oddly glamorous name, as if he were conceived by F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps even Evelyn Waugh. He is fascinating because he is the one who didn’t get away with it. “I’m a guy who’s made massive mistakes,” he admits. His final message to the audience: if you’re going to get rich, get rich quickly. But this means years of preparation and patience to make it happen. And doing it ethically.

“I think money’s great,” he says. “The problem is what’s attached to the money.”








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