Leitura para o fim-de-semana: o verdadeiro lobo de Wall Street

Até há pouco tempo poucos em Portugal terão ouvido falar em Jordan Belfort. Tudo mudou nos últimos dias com a estreia de O Lobo de Wall Street nos Estados Unidos e com a chegada aos ecrãs nacionais marcada para a próxima quinta-feira. Realizado por Martin Scorcese e protagonizado por Leonardo Di Caprio, conta a história de um corrector que ganhou milhões de dólares em Wall Street até ser preso, acusado e condenado por fraude e lavagem de dinheiro. Nesta reportagem, a Bloomberg Businessweek acompanhou o verdadeiro Jordan Belfort que conta o seu passado, fala da escolha entre Di Caprio e Brad Pitt, recorda os dias na prisão, a escrita do livro e a forma como agora ganha milhares de euros a dar palestras.

Foto: Jeff Brown para a Bloomberg Businessweek

Foto: Jeff Brown para a Bloomberg Businessweek

Jordan Belfort, the Real Wolf of Wall Street

“Jordan Belfort, aka the Wolf of Wall Street, hates it when people describe him as a criminal. “‘Convicted stock swindler’—it’s like it hurts my heart,” he says, practically shuddering. “I know it was true, but it’s not who I am. I say to my son, I say it to everybody who I try to mentor: We are not the mistakes of our past. We’re the resources and capabilities that we glean from our past. And it’s so true.”

It’s a delicate argument for Belfort to make. He will forever be associated with Stratton Oakmont, the Long Island penny-stock boiler room he ran in the 1990s. Stratton employed more than 1,000 brokers at its peak, before the Securities and Exchange Commission shut down the company and the FBI arrested Belfort, in 1998. Convicted of money laundering and securities fraud in 2003, he received a four-year prison sentence—he served only 22 months—and was ordered to repay $110.4 million to a victim compensation fund. Other terms for the kind of outfit he built and ran are “pump and dump” and “chop-shop.” The words “fraud” and “crook” come up frequently as well. “It chokes me up a little when I think about it. … I was a bad guy. And it wasn’t like I started that way,” he says, his voice becoming tight. “You can get desensitized to your own actions—it’s easy on Wall Street. Before you know it, it’s like everyone’s just a number.” He goes on: “I shouldn’t really care what people think of me. … I know I’m good. But of course I do care.”

Belfort, 51, is in Fort Worth for two days in October speaking to the Young Presidents’ Organization, a secretive networking group for CEOs and other senior executives under the age of 45. His theme, as usual, is what he’s learned from his experiences about how others can avoid the pain he caused and suffered. Sporting a John Boehner-caliber tan, Belfort delivers a slick, self-deprecating performance describing how he drove his life into the gutter with greed and drugs and excess, how he stole millions from people and went to jail for it, and how he reinvented himself as a legitimate businessman. He’s a natural performer, and in spite of his tarnished background—or more likely because of it—audiences appear genuinely moved by what he says. It doesn’t hurt to open appearances with a trailer for The Wolf of Wall Street, the movie based on his story, which is due to open, after some editing hiccups, on Christmas Day.

“To my shock it got picked up, with this bidding war between Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt,” Belfort says, “and I chose Leo and Martin Scorsese.” In addition to several million dollars that have flowed from book and movie deals, Belfort gets paid in the neighborhood of $30,000 for a speech—not bad for an hour’s work, although it requires him to spend the night in Fort Worth. A portion of his income will go to repay the investors whose money he lost.

Belfort makes a very good living, but it’s crumbs compared with the millions he says he once generated every day, pushing crappy $4 stocks on retirees in Orlando. In addition to traveling the world speaking, he works as a consultant to individual companies, talking about business ethics or teaching his sales techniques—the same ones that fueled his brokerage firm—which he argues can also be put to good use. Belfort says he’s been hired to do work for Delta Air Lines (DAL), Symantec (SYMC), Virgin Airlines, Wyndham (WYN), Telstra (TLS:AU), Deutsche Bank (DB), Fairfax Media (FXJ:AU), Southern Cross Austereo, and Absa Bank, among others. So far, almost all of his corporate clients have been abroad; in the U.S., the baggage of his criminal case may have created too much of a minefield for him to navigate, although he hopes this will change.

“From the letters and things we get, I think a lot of people in the U.S. think Jordan is thrilled about what he did, and that he partied hard and all that,” says Belfort’s fiancée, Anne Koppe, who runs his business with him out of Hermosa Beach, Calif. “He’d love [the U.S.] to be his main market, but he wanted to make sure that his message was pure and that people responded properly to it.”

Belfort says he doesn’t want to profit from his crimes, but of course without them there would be no Wolf of Wall Street, no notoriety, no redemption story, no one paying him to talk about his life, and no fraternizing with Leo, about whom Belfort sounds a little star-struck. “You can’t change what you’ve done, you can only learn from it and try to be a better person for it and embrace it and grow. I’m not saying I’m Gandhi or I’ve discovered the cure for everything that ailed me emotionally or my insecurities. But, you know, I try really hard to be the best person I can be every single day.”

Belfort’s $30,000 atonement speech is very earnest. His books, The Wolf of Wall Street and its sequel, Catching the Wolf of Wall Street, revel in crime and the high life. They recount in loving detail every pill he popped, every Concorde flight he took, and every prostitute he hired as he built his empire of sleaze, Stratton Oakmont, into “one of the largest and by far the wildest brokerage firms in Wall Street history.” The over-the-top antics depicted in the books read like submissions to Penthouse Forum: A young female sales assistant takes turns servicing the men at the office, like a shoeshiner; there are drugged-out helicopter rides and blitzed trips on private jets; Belfort goes hooker shopping with buttoned-up Swiss bankers. All of it happens against a backdrop of Belfort’s specially trained brokers making millions selling worthless stocks to gullible investors. “F-‍-‍- this and f-‍-‍- that! S-‍-‍- here and s-‍-‍- there! It was the language of Wall Street,” Belfort writes, describing the din inside his firm’s cavernous, crowded office. “It was the essence of the mighty roar, and it cut through everything. It intoxicated you. It seduced you! It f-‍-‍-ing liberated you! It helped you achieve goals you never dreamed yourself capable of! And it swept everyone away, especially me.” Consistent throughout is shameless bragging about how much money he was making and how ostentatiously he was spending it.

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