Have you watched The Wolf of Wall Street?

Have you watched The Wolf of Wall Street?

Jan 22, 2014
Left: The Wolf of Wall Street movie poster; Right: The original Forbes magazine article featuring Jordan Belfort

My article last week Why are we poor? Why are we happy? hit a nerve among the readers. It reached around 16,000 hits after a few days and I received interesting feedback via FB, Disqus, email and text. While most of the readers got the point when I said “Poverty is a mindset.” some didn’t quite get it. Well, as I said in the same article whether you believe you can or you can’t, you are right! That is the power of the mind.

It is probably in everyone’s dreams to be rich; some more intently than others. A laser focus on this dream of becoming rich helps one get there sooner, but it is dangerous to get there without the proper values and guidance. One such example is the life of Jordan Belfort, a rock star stockbroker in the ‘90s who is the main character in the movie currently showing entitled The Wolf of Wall Street. 

This Martin Scorcese movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio is one for the books with a high IMDB rating of 8.6, full of graphic scenes of sex and drug use, with the “f” word uttered a million times throughout the three hour movie. The story is based on the memoir book with the same title written by Jordan Belfort while he was in prison.

Belfort is a natural salesman, made a lot of money from selling meat, bankrupt at age 24, worked at L.F. Rothchild, D.H. to train as a stock broker and when he finally got his license as a full-fledged stock broker to earn his own commissions, Black Monday happened (October 19, 1987), the day stock markets crashed around the world with the Dow Jones index plummeting by 23%! He was laid off at Rothchild, which eventually closed shop. Belfort found his way to Investors Center, a shady brokerage firm that sold penny stocks (here we call them basura stocks) charging a ridiculously high commission rate of 50%! He mastered the art of stock brokering and put up his own Stratton Oakmont. He employed his friends, all with shady character, and taught them how to sell, and boy did they sell well. He was eventually featured in an article in Forbes magazine in 1991 entitled The Wolf of Wall Street.

Incidentally, the real article was entitled Steaks, Stocks – What’s the Difference? Other articles I read claim that the moniker Wolf was never bestowed on Belfort. The article author Roula Khalaf called him a “twisted Robin Hood who takes money from the rich and gives to himself and his merry band of brokers.” The Wolf of Wall Street was a title of a movie shown in 1929, long before Belfort was born. It was the first “talkie” of George Bancroft, a famous actor during the era of silent movies. It was about a ruthless trader who shorted copper. In 2002 there was another movie entitled The Wolves of Wall Street, about a bar tender who becomes a stockbroker at the Wolfe Brothers brokerage firm.

Belfort was initially upset with the release of the Forbes article because it exposed the shenanigans of Stratton Oakmont, their use of “pump and dump” technique. This refers to buying large blocks of particular stocks, then aggressively pushing their clients to buy as much and as quickly as they can, and when the prices surge the brokers themselves dump their holdings, making obscene profits while leaving their gullible clients wiped out!

The article seemed to have given Belfort’s company a boost as his 150 brokers ballooned to 1,000. The lure of money (his brokers reportedly earned six to seven figures annually) enticed a lot of people to join him despite the shenanigans exposed. Belfort became their idol – a young sweet talking man who convinced them that they could achieve their big dreams. He was a living testament himself as he drove a Ferrari, owned a yacht previously owned by Coco Channel, a private plane, helicopter, mansions. What more, he allowed sex, booze and drugs at work! It must have been a dream job for the lost bundles of wild testosterone!

Choose your idols/life pegs well.

Now here’s the danger. We have to be careful when we choose our model, mentor and company. It is very likely that we will acquire both the good and the bad side of the people we admire and we work for/with on a daily basis. It’s good to learn lessons from the mistakes of people like Belfort but it’s dangerous to be in close association with people like him, no matter how much sales training you can learn from him.

Check out the guy on you tube. He is really a bolero par excellence. And this is the main outcry of the people who knew him – the investigator, the clients he screwed, friends he betrayed. No matter what he says about his reform while in prison, they still couldn’t believe him. They also have a problem with the possible effect of the movie glorifying his crimes and the overall Hollywood magic. The investigator said, “The problem is when Leonardo DiCaprio plays the role of a crook, it becomes cute, and everything’s ok.” He has a point.

It’s also interesting to note that at the start of the movie he was told that he was a pond scum, meant to connote that he was a low-life. His first stockbroker mentor effectively played by Matthew McConaughey also told him from the very start that his job is to take away the money from the client’s pocket to his and not to aspire to be a Warren Buffett. He also taught him that the booze and drugs are needed to do the job. Afterwards, he goes on to beat his chest as he chants, “Uh hmm… uh hmmm…” and DiCaprio follows. Again, if that’s what you think you are, you will most likely turn out to be so. Just like parents, first teachers and bosses have such a great impact on our value formation.

I wonder how he was raised by his accountant parents? I have not found any literature on how he was parented but I read that Belfort fired his own father as his company’s accountant. There was a scene in the movie showing his father questioning their huge expenses on prostitutes.

For me it’s still a movie worth watching. All adult stock market investors who are not too prude to watch those graphic scenes should watch it. You can just close your eyes if they’re too much for you to bear, as I did in some scenes. But go see it so you know how far a stockbroker (or any broker for that matter) can sometimes go in order to close a deal, so you know that you should still do your own homework no matter how much you trust your broker, so you know that chasing money without a higher purpose is dangerous.

Warning: It may be dangerous for a clueless spouse, child or parent of a stockbroker to watch this movie. But if you are any of the three and still want to watch it, go watch it with your stockbroker spouse/parent/child. Give him/her the chance to defend him/herself right away.

Intoxicating Wealth

Movies like The Wolf of Wall StreetThe Boiler Room (also loosely based on Belfort’s life), the Wall Street movies starred in by Michael Douglas, etc. make a lot of people uncomfortable with investing in the stock market. (I wonder why no Hollywood movie on the colorful life of Jesse Livermore has been done yet?) Wealth created here can be intoxicating and can lead people astray. There’s a thin line between greed and ambition, especially when you lose grip of your values. While a lot of crazy things really happen in this industry populated by high-strung commission and quick profit driven players, one can still make good returns without compromising values. There are good people in the industry. Some of them have become industry leaders and kept their morals intact. Unfortunately, they don’t make for exciting Hollywood movies. Don’t worry, I will write about them soon.

For the meantime, let’s be reminded to always make sure that what we do for and with money agrees with our core values; otherwise, no amount of money in the world will make us happy. If we’ve abandoned our values by the time we finally attain that amount of wealth we’ve always dreamed of and worked for, we might get intoxicated and end up being worse off than when we had less.