By: Frank Armstrong
*As seen on Forbes.
On his first day on Wall Street, Jordan Belfort is told that he is lower than pond scum. An apt description, he subsequently proves it in spades.
Belfort is an attractive, charismatic, sociopath with incredible natural sales and leadership skills. An over the top, testosterone loaded, greed fueled, relentlessly driven, self-promoting, completely unscrupulous personality, Wall Street is just made for him. In few other venues could he have risen so far so fast while irrevocably damaging so many lives.
Belfort awakens every morning wondering how he can separate investors from their hard earned money. If he had any concerns about destroying working class lives through penny stock scams, it was that they didn’t have enough to satisfy his overwhelming greed. He moves on to larger clients and IPOs while building the rogue brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont where the only ethic was sell more, steal more.
While Belfort is an outlier, Wall Street brokerages almost universally measure success by sales and commissions rather than outcomes for clients. Belfort perfectly works the system where conflicts of interest are the norm and the incentives are all wrong for far too long. There were in fact plenty of early clues that Belfort was dirty. Roula Khalaf, a Forbes staff writer pegged him as a dirt bag in a 1991 article: Steaks, Stocks—What’s the difference?
If there is a hero in the story, it’s the FBI agent that finally nails Belfort. Unfortunately and ironically, his reward for defending all of us from dirt bags like Belfort is to continue his lifetime of dreary subway rides and cheap suits.
If soft core porn, smooth Brazilian wax jobs, hundreds of F-Bombs, and the consumption of mountains of drugs offend you, the film is not your cup of tea. In any event, don’t take your kids. De Caprio brilliantly plays Belfort as a semi sympathetic flawed character. It’s a compelling story, with moments of hijinks and high comedy.
In fact it romanticizes and trivializes his crimes. He cheated investors out of over $200 million, ratted out all his associates, and served only 22 months in a federal jail for securities violations, fraud, and money laundering. He probably would have gotten more if he had been convicted of selling an ounce of weed. (He must have had many interesting conversations about the effects of his vast arsenal of drugs with his cellmate, Chong of the Cheech and Chong duo.)
Perhaps worse yet, the film blatantly promotes Belfort as a life coach, guru, sales consultant, and motivational speaker with aspirations of becoming a reality TV star. It shows the newly reformed better than ever Belfort coaching adoring trainees in the same hard core sales techniques that victimized thousands of his clients.
Left unanswered is the question of whether such a low life slime can truly achieve redemption. Or having been permanently barred from the securities business, is Belfort just running a new con? I’ll leave that question to religious scholars. I’m skeptical.