Jordan Belfort, the Wolf of Wall Street, was in RDS this week, selling his secrets of how to achieve wealth. Not everyone was impressed, writes Michael Clifford.
"THERE ARE NO SECOND ACTS IN AMERICAN LIVES" — F Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald, quite obviously, was never at a seminar hosted by Jordan Belfort, the Wolf of Wall Street. If he had been, he would have known that all you have to do is get your head right and you can enter Life Act II gagging for action. Just look at the Wolf himself.
Belfort was in Dublin this week, retailing his secret on how to achieve monetary wealth beyond your wildest dreams. The main hall of the RDS was packed to the rafters, over 2,500 souls, looking to be sprinkled with magic.
Many of them most likely had never heard of Belfort before the success last year of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street. That movie was based on Belfort’s own memoir about his life as a degenerate stockbroker. Belfort was played by Leonardo di Caprio, the hottest actor on the planet.
The queue for the Wolf’s “seminar” stretched onto the Merrion Road, as rush hour traffic whizzed by. There were at least five males for every female. Testosterone was at a premium. Lots of suits with pin stripes wide enough to accommodate a shoe.
Lots of guys with shades pushed up onto foreheads. Lots of wannabe-wolves.
Most of them looked to be under 40, with enough fuel in the tank to feed dreams of becoming overnight millionaires.
“I was just curious after seeing the movie,” said John Dillon, a student in the queue who was attending with his male friend. “I mean, apart from the drugs and sex and that, it looked like there was something to him in terms of selling.”
An audience with the Wolf doesn’t come cheap. Tickets prices ranged from €50 to €120, and it sold out within weeks.
You could say that this guy’s second act is turning out to be the main event. Belfort became a multi-millionaire before he was 30, through dodgy stockbroking that lurched from ethically shocking to illegal. In his 26th year, he pulled in $49 million.
The FBI smelt that there was something wrong and nabbed him after a long investigation. He ratted out his fellow criminal brokers and pulled a reduced sentence of four years, of which he served 22 months. Part of his deal with the prosecutors was that he’d repay $100m to investors he defrauded.
What did he do when he got out? He wrote a book about his life that Scorsese optioned, and then he took to the road, spreading the gospel according to the wolf. At the RDS, he told the appreciative audience that he was now making more money than ever before.
“Getting rich is fucking easy,” he said. “Eight years ago I had zero; this year I’m going to make $100m gross.”
At the same time, he wants you to know that he is a new man. “If I hadn’t sacrificed my ethics and integrity, I’d be worth five or six billion now.” See, the guy has acknowledged the error of his ways. Crime doesn’t pay compared to conducting seminars. The road to redemption is paved with dollars.
“NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU IN YOUR PAST, YOU ARE NOT YOUR PAST”— The Wolf
The gathering is asked to get to their feet and welcome the 51-year-old Wolf. He enters stage right to the sound of applause. He’s a little guy, a padded out Bono with a deep New York accent. Some have speculated that he suffers from a Napoleon complex, but he denies that. He wears jeans and a black shirt with the tails out.
He certainly has an air of charm about him. Naturally, he has the requisite pint of Guinness at hand, but that’s probably the fault of some PR flunky.
All of his wives had Irish in them, he tells the audience by way of introduction.
He married young to a woman portrayed in the movie as level headed, and supportive when he was trying to get his career off the ground. Then, when the bucks began rolling in, he took up with a buxom blonde who had featured in a beer commercial.
They argued a lot in their Long Island mansion, even in front of the staff. She was perpetually cheesed off with his habitual use of prostitutes and him being stoned most of the time.
Jordan tells Dublin that he’s here to sell. He has a “system”, that he wants to impart.
He asks the entrepreneurs in the audience to stand up, and they do, and he asks for a round of applause for them. Ditto the sales people and the students.
As he talks, he prowls the stage, slapping the back of his right hand into the palm of his left. He tells everyone to stand up. “Say, Yes,” he says. “Yes,” the audience respond.
“Louder,” he says. They turn it up a bit. “Slap your right hand in your left,” he says.
They do. “High five the person next to you.” They do. “Give somebody a hug”. (At this point, I buried my head in my notebook and scribbled furiously as the man next to me, a tall besuited chap, looked quickly in my direction and decided to give it a skip).
Elsewhere, it was hugs aplenty, as if the seminar was turning into a folk mass.
“I’m not a motivational speaker,” he says. “I’m a strategist. This is not about relationship mastery, this is money mastery.”
He was some boy for the money mastery back in the day. After starting out in stockbroking in the late 80s, he founded his own firm on Long Island. Quickly, they took on the big boys. Forbes magazine did a piece on him, gifting him the moniker the Wolf of Wall Street.
In reality, much of his earnings were through the kind of manipulation in which the client’s money is used with the sole purpose of maximising commission for the broker. Money gets moved around at will. Nothing is created. A form of pyramid scheme takes hold in which the broker gets a slice of the pie at every turn, feeding off greed and insecurity, driven not to maximise the client’s investment, but to keep commission rolling in.
Then there was the “pump and dump” scheme, in which shares are bought at a low price, manipulated and pumped up in price, then sold at the top of the market, before the ordinary Joes and Josephines know what’s going on, and the price collapses again.
That, and attempts to launder his money, was ultimately what did for Belfort.
He could have got up to 20 years in prison, but, like his kindred spirits in the Mafiosi, he agreed to co-operate and rat out his fellow brokers for a reduced sentence.
“ACT AS IF YOU’RE A WEALTHY MAN, RICH ALREADY, AND THEN YOU’LL SURELY BECOME RICH. ACT AS IF YOU HAVE UNMATCHED CONFIDENCE AND THEN PEOPLE WILL SURELY HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOU. AND ACT AS IF YOU ARE ALREADY A TREMENDOUS SUCCESS, AND AS SURE AS I STAND HERE TODAY — YOU WILL BECOME SUCCESSFUL” — The Wolf
Acting is where it’s at with Belfort, as if confidence is a character that can be impersonated. The Wolf doesn’t have anything particularly novel in his bag of tricks.
His patter resembles that of all the lads who tour the world retailing dreams. It is a combination of amateur psychology and basic business rules, usually learnt in the first term of a college course. The “system” he claims to be his key to success is old hat.
Each attendee at the seminar gets a sheet. (This is low-cost dream-retailing. You don’t even get a goddamn brochure). On it is Jordan’s “Straight Line Entrepreneurship”. At various junctures in the seminar he asks people to write down what they’re worth; and then to grade themselves under headings like “sales and ethical persuasion/influence”, and “Emotional state management”, and “Empowering beliefs”. In reality, it’s high end waffle.
His unique selling point is himself. He obviously has a force of personality that, when used, can bring out the best in others. In his stockbroking firm, he used to give sales pep talks twice a day, and his employees hovered up cash by the new time. Haul up any moral anchor, and there is no doubt but that the guy has something going for him.
“Some people think selling is evil,” he says. “Selling is everything in life.” He doesn’t expand on who exactly thinks selling is evil, unless of course, your product is a dud and you’re a crook.
“Money is like alcohol,” he says. “Money makes you more of what you are. It magnifies you.” Then he leaves the stage and walks down among the faithful, as if he’s Bruce Springsteen. One woman leans out from her seat when he is nearby and waves. But the Wolf is in the zone. He’s fired up on selling himself.
“Say, ‘money is a beautiful thing’,” he says. Everybody responds. “Say, ‘I love money but I will not be greedy’.” The responsorial psalm echoes back at him. “Say ‘I will maintain my ethics and get rich in the process’.” They all oblige, even if that one is clunky and qualified.
He mentions the ethics thing a few times, just to reassure his audience that he has changed. Right now, he’s big on ethics, and anybody who questions that is a schmuck.
The movie has been a Godsend to Belfort. Apart from the estimated $1m for the rights, it gave him profile he could never have dreamed about.
Reportedly, he pulls in 30 grand per seminar, but controversy has followed him around the world. Prosecutors in New York have complained that he has not, as directed by the court, handed over half of his earnings to recompense those he swindled. He says he’s moving in that direction, and that the profits from a 45 date tour of the USA this year will all go towards his victims.
Still, his sums are a bit dodgy. He claims that he will earn $100m this year. That would be about 3,300 seminars, or ten a day. Even allowing for private coaching, for which he says he charges $1m a year, it’s hard to see how he can make that wodge. Still, as he says himself, believe and it will surely happen.
At the RDS he keeps everybody on their toes by getting them to engage. Every so often, he instructs the audience to stand up and say something, as if he’s a priest addressing a congregation.
“Say ‘I am committed to getting rich’.” They pledge their commitment. “Put your hand on your heart and say, ‘I must use a system. I am an asset’.” The hall obliges.
When you’ve shelled out up to one 120 lids you’re willing to stand on your head if that’s he says is required to get rich.
“YOU’RE BORN ON DAY ONE WITH ALL YOUR POTENTIAL, AND THEN ON DAY TWO SHIT STARTS TO HAPPEN” — The Wolf
Reviews are mixed. John Reilly from Navan has left the hall for a smoke. He can’t really make his mind up about the wolf.
“He’s a good speaker,” John says. “He seems highly motivated and he has a lot to say, but I don’t know if it was worth the €83 it cost me. I’ll get back to you on that.”
Another man is leaving early. Jonas doesn’t want to give his surname because his ticket was purchased by his company, but he has plenty to say on the Wolf.
“There’s not much to it,” he says. “He does a lot of stories, and they tell the same thing. You could get all the good out of what he’s saying in 15 minutes. I regret coming, wouldn’t really recommend it, but the movie was good.”
Inside the seminar continues well into its third hour. The man has energy, you’d have to give him that. He never stops talking. One matter he returns to frequently is his “three day entrepreneurial boot camp”, where, well, your dreams don’t just come through, they arrive with bells and whistles tied on. Three hours is one thing, but it would take some constitution to put up with three days of the Wolf howling in your ear.
Like much else, it’s a numbers game. In an audience of 2,500 there is bound to be a number — maybe a 100, maybe more — who will be so impressed they’re willing to invest in their future by signing up for the big gig.
He talks about how this is the time to invest in the Irish economy, just as things are picking up. He got out of real estate back in ’08 before the bubble burst. “How did I know it was over? When the postman was taking out mortgages, when the carpenter was flipping property, when everybody was doing it,” he says. Smart guy.
Then it’s once more with feeling. He gets the audience to mark up their score cards, and tells some of them that they’re playing defence rather than offence. “Everybody say, ‘I will play offence”. They respond, really giving it welly.
“Everybody stand up real quick and say ‘yes, yes, yes’.” Sure as hell, off they go, as if they’re auditioning for the role of Molly Bloom, en route to ecstasy, or at least untold riches.
Everybody deserves a second chance, and Mr Belfort is making the most of his. Once upon a time, he moved money around using smoke and mirrors, and lowered himself into a moral gutter.
Today, what he sells remains intangible, but maybe some are getting bang for their buck, or maybe they’re just dreamers.
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