Leonardo Di Caprio in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Like many others, I saw The Wolf of Wall Street over the holidays. For me, the movie raised issues beyond its artistic or entertainment value or the depth of the acting performances by its star-studded cast.
I have a close connection to the crazy story depicted in the movie. This is because I prosecuted Jordan Belfort when I was an assistant United States attorney in Brooklyn.
I, along with Gregory Coleman, an FBI special agent, led the criminal investigation of Mr Belfort, depicted by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie, and his cohorts at Stratton Oakmont, a classic, Long Island pump-and-dump boiler room stock brokerage firm that stole hundreds of millions from investors.
Mr Coleman and I chased down co-operating witnesses and evidence around the world that culminated in the indictment of Mr Belfort and his real-life partner, Danny Porush (depicted by Jonah Hill in the movie). Within days of being charged and arrested, the two opted to co-operate with our investigation.
Because no one outside a small circle in the Department of Justice knew of their co-operation, we were able to secretly debrief them daily for months, documenting their almost too-outlandish-to-believe accounts of serial criminal fraud, deceit and debauchery.
Mr Belfort was released on bail and Mr Porush remained in jail for several months, and so neither knew the other was speaking with us, allowing us an unusual opportunity to test their honesty.
They later wore wires for us, surreptitiously recording dozens of former and current business colleagues and friends, with whom they had been engaged in fraud for years, right up to their arrest. Their co-operation proved to be extremely valuable to law enforcement, contributing to dozens of convictions of other significant wrongdoers.
They each received substantially reduced prison terms from the court as reward for their assistance in prosecuting others.
Fellow lawyers, friends and family who know of my involvement have been curious to hear my reaction to the film. I had read Mr Belfort’s two memoirs about his life of crime and his time cooperating with me and Mr Coleman, which are the basis for the movie.
After spending hundreds of hours interrogating Mr Belfort and others, I was able to judge his accuracy perhaps better than almost anyone. Simply put, he had to tell us the truth, or face up to 25 years in jail.
Yet true to form for Mr Belfort, when he wrote his books years later, he invented much. No one ever called him the Wolf of Wall Street until he created this name as a title for his books. He aggrandised his importance and reverence for him by others at his firm.
His now-defunct firm, Stratton Oakmont, wasn’t representative of the typical Wall Street brokerage firm. When their days of reckoning came, Mr Belfort and Mr Porush didn’t stand up against law enforcement, but rather caved, quickly agreeing to cooperate against virtually everyone close to them.
Although they were required to turn over 50 per cent of whatever they earned to their victims, sadly, little has been collected. Victims don’t figure in the Belfort books, though thousands have not been recompensed. Similarly, remorse is merely a convenient word for Mr Belfort, sandwiched between stories of drug-addled fraud and nasty put-downs of those closest to him. In short, the books were what I expected from Mr Belfort.
The filmmakers have said that they didn’t want to depict Stratton’s victims because it would detract from their focus on the brutality of the wrongdoers. The details that animate a successful criminal prosecution don’t always make for compelling on-screen storytelling. “It’s just a movie,” many have reminded me, and I watched with this in mind.
And what was my reaction to the movie? For most of its three hours, it met my expectations. It is classic Scorsese: fast-paced, powerful, aggressive storytelling. I knew it would take liberties with some important facts, conflating crucial events into digestible scenes more fitting for a screen narrative, and that the truth about Stratton Oakmont would be muddled in the bargain.
I also braced myself for an unjustified, sympathetic depiction of Mr Belfort. As scheming as Mr Belfort is depicted on screen, it is hard to truly feel the proper degree of disgust for one charmingly portrayed by Mr DiCaprio.
At the end of the movie, my reaction shifted. For reasons I don’t understand, the filmmakers and screenwriter opted as their final word to use the real Jordan Belfort to introduce the character played by Mr DiCaprio. The scene supposedly occurs years later, after the real Jordan Belfort had completed his cooperation, trial testimony and jail term, and began to pitch himself as a paid “motivational speaker.”
The film pans over a rapt crowd of new victims enthralled by the character delivering a snippet of a histrionic speech viewers had seen earlier the movie, when Mr Belfort used the device to teach his brokers how to rip off innocent investors.
In the film, behind Mr Belfort and Mr DiCaprio is a large sign advertising the name of Mr Belfort’s real motivational speaking company. I suppose the filmmakers’ point is that there perpetually remain audiences for fraudulent scams.
But there are consequences for blurring the lines too much. The real Belfort story still includes thousands of victims who lost hundreds of millions of dollars that they never will be repaid. This began with bogus scripts that Mr Belfort personally wrote for his legion of brokers to use against them.
When we debriefed him, Mr Belfort described how he awoke virtually every day thinking of new ways to defraud others. Now, Mr Belfort sells himself as someone whom others should pay to receive what essentially are variants of the same falsehoods he trained others to use against his victims.
Some might think the movie’s ending is a cute conceit: putting the artist and his muse together on a stage for a final scene. To his victims, it is a beyond an insult. And for anyone who is enticed to pay Mr Belfort to hear his recordings and speeches, it aids and abets this unrepentant character in possibly duping others yet again.
Should it be surprising that following the release of the movie, Mr Belfort is reportedly negotiating to host a reality-TV show?
The Wolf of Wall Street creators can possibly justify excluding victims from their story, but not while they literally give the final scene to the real Jordan Belfort. That might be art, but it’s wrong.
Joel Cohen, a former federal prosecutor, is a partner in the New York office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
The New York Times