But that isn’t the main reason for my self-imposed policy. The main reason is that as a struggling writer seeking his first proper publishing deal it is hardly my place to criticise the work of people who have already made the grade, so to speak. It would be a bit like someone who has picked up a golf club for the very first time criticising Rory McIlroy for his
performance at the US Masters. Its extremely presumptuous.
However, I have just finished reading a book about a person so lacking in morality that I can't stay quiet. This book is about someone who is so amoral, so unpleasant and so greedy that I just had to write something. So here goes.
Before I start I must warn you that I will be revealing plot points and the ending of the book in question, so if you haven’t
seen the film of The Wolf Of Wall Street or read the book then look away now if you don’t want to know what happens, as they say when the football results are about to be announced on the TV news.
Jordan Belfort is a real person who now works as a motivational speaker, a skill he discovered when he encouraged his employees to “rip your clients’ eyeballs out” when he conducted his daily team meetings at his brokerage firm. Yes, that’s the sort of motivation we’re talking about here. He tells the story of his stockbroking years in his book, which has also
been turned into a film directed by Martin Scorcese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Most of the story takes place in the 1990s when Belfort was in his early 30s. He will be 52 in July. In itself the book is well written and held my attention until the last page, so my critique is not of Belfort’s writing style. My issues with this book relate to the man himself, as told in his own words.
At first I thought that this book was about greed in the stockbroking business during the early part of the George Bush (Snr) presidency, but I was wrong. It’s true that there is a lot of that going on, as well as a lot of illegal activity related to the buying and selling of stocks, tax evasion, money laundering etc. However, as the book proceeds it emerges
that it’s just as much about the misuse of drugs and the effect it has on Belfort’s life and the lives of others. Most of the second half of the book relates to Belfort’s increasingly rapid descent into cocaine addiction and the struggle he had to recover from it. I should point out that he is already a drug addict at the start of the book, but manages to excuse himself as his drug of choice is used for pain relief as well as for recreational purposes.
This gives a significant clue as to Belfort’s character. He uses words to manipulate people but also to justify himself and
his actions. His self-proclaimed title, of which he inordinately proud, is The Wolf Of Wall Street but that is a lie in itself. Reputable stockbrokers are based on Wall Street. Boiler room operations such as Stratton Oakmont, the business that Belfort co-founded, are based elsewhere, often in Florida but also, as in Belfort’s case, on Long Island.
It’s clear that Belfort was a greedy, narcissistic criminal who took pleasure in corrupting others and doing regular folks down. People were simply a way for him to make money and to indulge his addictions to sex and drugs. When things go wrong it is always the fault of others. They’re either incompetent or they’re plotting against him – and that’s before
he starts suffering the paranoia that is the joy of all cocaine addicts.
Belfort tries to justify his behaviour by using the argument that he is providing for his family. It is true that he puts a roof
over his second wife and children’s heads. Several roofs, in fact, all costing millions of dollars. His claims to love his wife, his daughter and the son they have later in the story sound extremely hollow when placed alongside the much
greater love he so obviously has for himself. It comes as no surprise when his wife divorces him towards the end of the book. Interestingly Belfort never regards himself as having been unfaithful to his wife. He convinces himself of this
because he never had a mistress. The numerous prostitutes he uses apparently don’t count. I would be interested to hear a female perspective on this little bit of self-delusion.
Mind you Nadine, Belfort’s wife, is no angel. She didn’t ask too many questions when the money was rolling in and it’s his arrest at the end of the book that breaks up the marriage, not the prostitutes or the drugs, when she sees that the good times are apparently over. As it happens she’s wrong. Belfort is richer now than he ever was then.
The last third or so of the book is the “redemption” part of the story. Finally seeing the error of his ways Belfort goes into rehab in order to win his wife back and, low and behold, he succeeds. He doesn’t relapse. He doesn’t fall apart and end up in a mental hospital, except for a few short days after his final breakdown and attempted suicide. Only it isn’t an attempted suicide, is it? He is in a house with a third party looking after him and takes the overdose in front of his guardian. 911 has been dialled before the pills have hit his stomach. It isn’t even a decent “cry for help”. It’s a manipulation just like so many of Belfort’s other acts.
At the end of the book Belfort “pays his debt to society” when he is arrested and charged with various breaches of America’s securities laws and for money laundering. In exchange for ratting out his partners in crime, justified by preventing his (now ex) wife from being indicted, he gets just 22 months in prison. His wife has done nothing wrong in
criminal terms so there are no grounds for her to be indicted, so this is clearly more self-justification from Belfort in order to reduce his sentence so it fools no one.
And here’s where the story really gets to me. Belfort clearly sees this as part of his redemption. He is paying his debt to
society. Except that he isn’t. Belfort's contempt for his fellow human beings shines through in his descriptions of the other addicts he meets while in rehab and also at meetings of alcoholics anonymous. This man is so up himself that its a surprise that he is able to walk upright.
There can be no redemption without reparation. Belfort made his millions by stealing from others and by corrupting people. He doesn’t see it that way, of course. He sees his breaches of America’s securities laws as being victimless crimes, but of course all his millions had to come from somewhere. There can be no winners without losers. How many lives
were ruined so that Belfort could become rich? How many houses were repossessed, how many families split up, how
many suicides can be attributed to his acts? How much despair and anguish was there as people saw their savings disappearing into Belfort’s bank accounts?
Belfort might well argue that investment on the stock market is a risky game, which it is. But when brokers tell lies about the stock they are selling then it’s not a matter of risk, it’s a matter of criminality. Belfort even tells his brokers how to overcome the Securities And Exchange Commission’s court order to tape all sales conversations by saying only what is legally compliant over the monitored phones. They then switch to unmonitored mobile phones to tell the lies that will close the deal.
According to Belfort’s Wikipedia entry he is still a very wealthy man, but he is still being pursued by the US authorities for reparations to his victims that he has allegedly neglected to pay. His court judgement mandates reparations of $110 million to his victims, but only a fraction has ever been paid and most of that through the sale of property that was seized by the court. One has to wonder how much money Jordan Belfort still hides away in anonymous Swiss bank accounts.
Jordan Belfort continues to live a life of luxury, now in California, while making even more money from the sale of his books, film rights and his motivational speaking. You can find out more about Jordan Belfort from his website, if you have a strong enough stomach.
I am very pleased that I didn’t actually pay money to read this book. I received it free as part of a special offer in a daily
newspaper. It would make my skin crawl to think I had made a financial contributed to this man.
I have several friends whose political views are considerably to the left of mine. They have a very different view of capitalism to the one I hold. Having read this book, an apparently true story, I think I’m starting to see what they’re getting at.
Jordan Belfort no doubt considers himself to be a reformed character, but there is an old saying that leopards don’t change their spots. The only way he will ever convince me that he’ is reformed is if he gives away all his money and leads a simple life that doesn’t involve self-publicity. I shan't hold my breath waiting for it to happen.
So to all of those City bankers who have made millions in bonuses by taking their own banks to the brink of ruin – this is how you do greed! You’re a bunch of amateurs by comparison with Jordan Belfort.