It isn't every day that a boy born in the Bronx and raised in Queens, who once sold meat door to door, and who built a brokerage firm in his 20s that prospered and then imploded from excess and fraud ends up in prison owing investors millions of dollars.
And it's even less common that the same guy writes a confessional memoir behind bars about his drug-and-sex-addled, high-flying brokerage days. That book ends up being turned into an Academy Award-nominated Martin Scorsese movie in 2013 starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the bigger-than-life boy from the boroughs of New York.
Now Jordan Belfort — the real "Wolf of Wall Street" — is coming to town, kicking off a national "redemption" tour as a motivational speaker Sept. 15 at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.
Honestly, it's tough to name another person who scammed so many and got punished by the feds, yet who won the chance to reinvent himself, thanks his character being played by one of the world's hottest actors.
In an interview, Belfort — now 52 and living in Manhattan Beach near Los Angeles with his blond girlfriend — waffles again and again. At one point he is repentant, trying to make things right by repaying tens of millions of dollars to ruined investors. Moments later he is an ego-inflated, silver-tongued pitchman who once idolized Gordon "Greed is Good" Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street and who now sees big dollar signs on the speaking circuit with his newfound global reputation.
He's apologetic. And he isn't.
He is quick to admit he did wrong aplenty, breaking securities and money laundering laws and ruining his personal life. But he is no less swift to acknowledge that Jordan has groupies. Lots of them. On Facebook. On Twitter, with more than 50,000 followers. On his own website.
"I spent 47 years as a model citizen and five years as a maniac," says Belfort. "What can I say?"
For those somehow unfamiliar with the Wolf of Wall Street saga, Belfort and buddies at his Long Island penny stock Stratton Oakmont brokerage bamboozled lots of small investors. Typically, Stratton brokers would set the hook by selling an investor a blue chip stock. But they would come right back, pitching classic "pump and dump" stocks whose low prices and small market values could be briefly inflated. Profits were taken just before the shares would crash, leaving the brokerage richer and investors to bear the bulk of the losses.
The motto among Stratton Oakmont stockbrokers? "Buy — or die."
Oh, yeah, most of this lucrative action occurred while Belfort and pals wallowed in Quaalude highs, enjoying big homes, trophy wives, yachts, helicopters, Swiss bank accounts and high-priced hookers.
Belfort says the movie exaggerated the craziness of the Stratton Oakmont world. But not by much.
Belfort was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to pay restitution. He was released in 2005 after 22 months for, as some of his unhappy Long Island co-workers complain, "ratting out" others. Belfort said that by the time the feds were involved, everyone was spilling their guts about everyone else.
So why even bother to write about Belfort? Just because he's kicking off a motivational sales tour here?
Looking over the years of truly extensive media coverage of Belfort, the range of nasty adjectives used to describe his antics and failures is startling. Forbes writes of the "raucous bacchanalia" of his brokerage days. The Financial Times called Belfort the "twisted Robin Hood" who took from the rich and gave to himself. New York magazine referred to him just before prison as a "neurotic Long Island version of Scarface." And The New Yorker cites Belfort's "raunchy, discursive vigor."
Yet there is seemingly an insatiable demand for Belfort on the speaking circuit — and the corporate suites. Last year he told BusinessWeek that he has been hired to do work for Delta Air Lines, Symantec, Virgin Airlines, Wyndham, Telstra, Deutsche Bank, Fairfax Media, Southern Cross Austereo and Absa Bank, among others.
In fact, Belfort is just back from a world tour where he claims he enjoyed audiences numbering 500 to 7,000 from Australia to South Africa to Canada.
Everybody's not a fan. In the New York Post, a federal investigator who flipped Belfort recently criticized the 92nd Street Y, a prominent Manhattan venue, for hosting the "convicted fraudster" later this month. At an engagement in May in Dublin, Ireland, Belfort enjoyed a sellout of "2,500 souls, looking to be sprinkled with magic," wrote the Irish Examiner. "There were at least five males for every female. Testosterone was at a premium. Lots of suits with pinstripes wide enough to accommodate a shoe. Lots of guys with shades pushed up onto foreheads. Lots of wannabe-wolves."
Yet, says the Irish paper: "The Wolf doesn't have anything particularly novel in his bag of tricks."
It may not matter. With such audiences clamoring for his DiCaprio-blessed mojo, small wonder Belfort is torn between fixing past sins and wallowing in the spotlight. He says he has already repaid about $25 million of the $110 million he and others owe, but he's clearly looking beyond the payback demanded for his Stratton Oakmont days.
As Belfort told his Dublin crowd: "Getting rich is f----ing easy," he said. "Eight years ago I had zero. This year I'm going to make $100 million gross."
That's more than he made on Wall Street.
Sounds like the Wolf of Motivational Speaking is just warming up.
Contact Robert Trigaux at email@example.com or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.