Belfort spoke to Cambridge students at the Cambridge GuildThe Cambridge Guild/Ben Phillips Photography

Everything about the so-called Wolf in The Wolf of Wall Street seems larger than life – from the scale of the $220 million he defrauded from investors, to the disarming speed at which he speaks, to the large timepiece on his wrist.

Jordan Belfort, as the Wolf is otherwise known, is certainly a man of extremes. Growing up in poverty in the New York borough of Queens with an early job as a meat salesman, Jordan Belfort did not always seem destined for fame and fortune. Some decades later, however, he was living quite a different life raking in enormous sums of money – once reportedly making $12 million in three minutes – and developing a range of drug addictions.

He’s left that lifestyle behind – “just carnal pleasures” he told me last term, after his talk at the Cambridge Guild. Today, Belfort is working the motivational speakers’ circuit and publishing more books after the bestselling success of his first, The Wolf of Wall Street, and its film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese.

“Jordan Belfort did not always seem destined for fame and fortune”

Belfort may have replaced cocaine with Red Bull, but he’s still speaking frantically at 100mph, even explaining to me the intricacies of the US financial system. I imagine what it must have been like to hear him over the phone when he sold penny stocks to unsuspecting buyers as part of his pump-and-dump scheme, through which he committed fraud and landed in jail. They must have felt completely overwhelmed before handing over their cash.

Belfort’s persuasiveness doesn’t just come from his rapid-fire delivery of words. He also developed what he calls the “straight line method” of persuasion which he now teaches across the world. Recalling another businessman who made his money through possibly nefarious means, wrote a book about persuasion, and has now ended up as President of the United States, I ask Belfort how he feels about persuasive techniques being used for the wrong reasons.

For Belfort, it’s now all about “ethical persuasion,” which is “the ability to get your point across in a way that connects with other people and allows them to overcome the barriers and obstacles the people just have towards taking action they should be taking.”

Belfort adds that “persuasion transcends business, it’s just life for me, it happens in all aspects of life.” He recalls Warren Buffet saying on video that the one thing that someone can do to make themselves “more valuable” is to take a lesson in persuasion, despite how some people “look down on [persuasion] as being some manipulative stance.” Based on how Belfort himself used to use persuasion, one could perhaps understand some of the scepticism. With Belfort being the master salesman, I find out after our interview that lessons in persuasion are exactly what Belfort is selling – for $14.95 a month, available on his website.

“Belfort adds that “persuasion transcends business, it’s just life for me”

Nevertheless, regardless of whether you view persuasion lessons as levelling the playing field of marketing or a scam designed for suckers, Belfort’s current line of business is far more legitimate than his last. For many, including the US Department of Justice, that’s what matters. Having spent 22 months in jail after a long-running investigation into his business practices by the DOJ, the US Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI, I ask Belfort whether he feels more bankers such as himself should’ve gone to jail. The aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis was notable not just for the scale of the crash, but for how few of the bankers who brought it about ever appeared in court. Belfort says more should have gone to prison but “not in the sense that I shouldn’t have gone […] I just think we should’ve gone because they broke the law. And […] people got hurt.”

He goes on to say that he finds it “baffling” that “there were a lot of people that just got away with it […] and I think that’s also a part of why Brexit and stuff like that […] is a reaction to that sort of stuff. People just rejecting the establishment. People are pissed off still.”

People may get a whole lot more pissed off if Belfort’s prediction of another financial crash being imminent proves accurate. I ask whether Wall Street has learned any lessons with regards to responsible practices in finance and he responds simply: “Lessons are learned and then lessons are forgotten.” Elaborating, he notes that “there is always going to be irrational exuberance and that’s a function of how markets work […] my sense is that the next crisis is probably going to come not because of something that started as a financial crisis but […] something else will happen that will stress the system and reveal problems that never really went away.” More bluntly, and using Bernie Madoff’s famed exposed Ponzi scheme as an analogy, he adds “all of a sudden you’ll see only shit was there.”

In his books, Belfort has recalled how he justified his criminality on the grounds that everyone else on Wall Street was doing something similar. Wall Street may not have learned its lessons with regards to financial responsibility, but I ask: are they still all so gung-ho about it? Belfort takes a rare pause, then answers “Yes and no,” before adding how “things are different with the internet right now. Everything is different. You know the #MeToo culture goes beyond #MeToo. There’s a whole political correctness thing that also is not just about political correctness, [but] a whole thing about morality in general.”

Noting that some “people behind the scenes” are “really fucking corrupt, really bad people”, he nevertheless makes sure to point out that: “most of Wall Street’s really legitimate. I think what happens is we tend to think that like 90% of those bankers are scumbags. I think it’s very, very rare. I think like 5% of them are.” For Belfort therefore, it’s important to discriminate between the majority of Wall Street bankers, and those in certain areas of finance, such as hedge funds, which he describes as “completely bogus, all based on insider information, you know.”

“We tend to think that like 90% of those bankers are scumbags. I think it’s very, very rare. I think like 5% of them are”

It’s difficult to see where Belfort sees himself in all this, not just whether he’s the 95% or the 5%, but also how he reconciles the criminal lifestyle he led with consequences which continue to this day – most of the $200 million he defrauded has never been repaid – with his current manifestation as a motivational speaker urging people to learn from his books and online courses. Ultimately, I felt unsure how much Belfort regretted his past actions.

He assures me, however, that he does regret the criminal nature of his financial dealings, but not so much the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll lifestyle – the depiction of which made the Wolf of Wall Street film such a controversial success. I ask him whether he feels that the way that people on Wall Street behaved in the 1990s was connected to what is also perceived as being the decline of American capitalism over the same period. Belfort strongly disagrees. For him, the decline of American capitalism was caused by “a lot of self-serving treasury secretaries that were going back and forth from Goldman Sachs to the treasury […] and, you know, making rules that their friends on Wall Street could jump through […] allowing the existence of financial instruments that can be leveraged 50 to 1 or 100 to 1.”


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Everything else, from the prostitutes, to the Quaaludes, to the wrecking of both his yacht and his helicopter, Belfort doesn’t see as connected to Wall Street’s business practices. Seeing this as a strange assertion to make, especially considering how closely the two were connected in Belfort’s personal life, I press him on this. He concedes that “I think that any business that makes a lot of money and adds pressure brings out drug use for sure […] but I don’t think that the bad part of Wall Street is connected to drugs or sex. That’s just people.”

Glancing around the lavish room of St John’s Divinity School in which we’re sitting following his talk at the Cambridge Guild and leaning back in his chair, he makes typically straight-shooting remark. “Long after Wall Street lives or dies, there’ll still be Pornhub, right?” And soon after that sordid note, our interview ends and I am ushered out the room where a small crowd awaits their moment with the Wolf.