What attracts us to the macho posturing of Wall Street’s trading floors? As Jordan Belfort’s debauched parable opens in cinemas, Tom Bailey explores the allure of getting away with it
Hookers in the basement, drug dealers in the car park, exotic animals in the boardroom and dwarf-tossing competitions on a Friday: it’s hard to say which of these office perks attracted Martin Scorsese to the tale of crooked Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort. But once you’ve had the pleasure of watching Marty’s epic, three-hour adaption of Belfort’s terrifyingly-brilliant autobiography, you’ll almost certainly be struck by two things.
Firstly, The Wolf Of Wall Street [Oscar klaxon] is the white-collar Scarface – minus the bad Cuban accents. And secondly, that – sickening moral deficit aside – making so much money that you can afford to sink your own 167ft yacht (complete with seaplane), swoop under bridges on the way to work in your twin-engined helicopter, own the restaurants you eat in and marry a Miller Lite model looks like a whole lot of F.U.N.
If you haven’t soaked in the sheer insanity of the book or read up on the film, we’d best introduce you to Belfort. Master manipulator; sex-and-drugs-fuelled maniac, HR nightmare; lovable Jewish-kid-done-spectacular; living testament to the regenerative power of the human liver and the most notorious Wall Street villain of the Nineties. “Gordon Gekko, Don Corleone, Keyser Söze; they even called me the King,” says Belfort of his pantheon of nicknames. “But my favourite was The Wolf Of Wall Street.”
Born to respectable New York accountants, Belfort was an aspiring dentist – until his tutor wearily announced to the class: “The golden age of dentistry is over. If you are here simply to make a lot of money, you’re in the wrong place.” Thus, like many a callow young go-getter, 24-year-old Belfort turned to Wall Street, wangling a job as a ‘connector’ (“Lower than pond scum,” barked his boss). But skip forward two years, and Pond Scum Esq is living in a 24-room mansion, driving a white Ferrari like the one from Miami Vice, wearing $2,400 crocodile-skin boots and making millions running a boiler room. Stratton Oakmont was a four-story glass office full of unqualified young guns, all using a telephone sales script (written by Belfort) to bully investors into buying worthless stocks. As stock prices heated up, Belfort would sell vast blocks of the previously worthless shares, banking huge profits and causing prices to collapse once more, leaving investors to shoulder the losses. His annual salary? About $49m. “Which really p*ssed me off, because that was just shy of a million a week.”
To those of you currently choking on a £2.49 Sainsbury’s chicken sandwich, we apologise. And to those of you thinking, “I can live with ‘just shy’ of a million,” then welcome to the club. It’s OK to fantasise about being a master of the universe; we’re hardwired to be seduced by its camaraderie, rabid competition and defiant political incorrectness. Weirdly, though, it’s not actually the money that sucks ambitious young men into its vortex of excess, emptiness and makeshift dwarf trebuchets – it’s the respect.
“Getting into Wall Street is like breaking into a house,” explains Turney Duff, one of the most powerful hedge-fund traders in New York during the early 2000s. “The front door is locked, so you have to try every window and door until you can break in. A young, aspiring kid once asked me ‘What’s the best way to get a trading job at Goldman Sachs?’ I said, ‘Build a time machine and go back and convince your grandfather to work there.’”
HIGH AS A KITE
Once you’re in, earning the salary is the easy bit. Or, as Belfort puts it: “The truth is we’re nothing more than sleazoid salesmen. None of us has any idea what stocks are going up. We’re all just throwing darts at a board.” And, as unscientific as that may sound, each hurl of a dart is fuelled by a predictable surge of testosterone. And it turns out we’re genetically programmed to thrive in testosterone-heavy environments.
In 2008, researchers at Stanford University discovered that a man shown an erotic picture is more likely to take larger financial risk than one shown a picture of something neutral (a stapler, in case you were wondering). “[Men] have a need, in an evolutionary sense, for both money and women,” they concluded. But, delve deeper and you’ll discover the more recent work of John M Coates, former Goldman Sachs trader and current professor of neuroscience at Cambridge University. After taking saliva samples from traders in the morning and evening, he found those with higher levels of testosterone in the morning were more likely to make unusually big profits that day.
Of course, there was no shortage of testosterone in Belfort’s New York boiler room. In fact, there was no shortage of any chemical. Or indeed pets, which Belfort encouraged his employees to bring to work – ranging from a chimp sporting a nappy and roller-skates combo to a goldfish (later eaten alive by Belfort’s second-in-command during a ‘motivational’ speech). And you thought you were lucky to have a foosball table…
Strip away the frivolous stuff – private jets to the Super Bowl, politically incorrect pet policies – and there remains another aspect of Wall Street’s primeval culture that the modern man cannot resist: nobody gives a sh*t what you say – provided you perform. Sweary, bracingly honest traders are verbal prizefighters (the film contains 506 ‘f*cks’, by the way – a record even for Scorsese). Compare that to the world of Google and Apple, where the modern thruster is invited to vigorously ‘touch base’ in a ‘thought shower’ and ‘run
an idea up a flagpole’. Surely we’re not the only ones who’ve ever thought, “We’re men, goddammit! We’re should be out swashbuckling; engaged in gladiatorial combat; baying for blood.” ‘Productive solutions’ just don’t feed our scientifically-proven testosterone cravings.
Meanwhile, in mid-Nineties Long Island, Belfort’s reign had started to crumble. Turns out that buying off his wife with $50,000 silk sheets while “f*cking 20 whores a night” wasn’t working out. And nor was his boiler room business model. As his post-adolescent army continued bullying rich investors at the top of their voices (“Whaddya mean you need to ask your wife? Does your wife ask you every time she buys a f*cking pair of shoes?!”), the FBI circled.
In 1999 the Wolf was arrested for fraud and money laundering. He agreed to become an informant, pay back $110m of his $200m fortune and, in return, received a 22-month sentence. He wrote his autobiography in prison, sold the rights for $2m, and now lives in a beachfront mansion, banking five-figure sums to teach sales techniques.
He hopes his life will serve as a cautionary tale “to any person who’s considering taking a God-given gift and misusing it; to anyone who thinks there’s anything glamorous about being known as a Wolf Of Wall Street.” But even the FBI special agent – who spent six years bringing the Wolf to justice – says of his prey: “Admiration is the wrong word, but…” They’ve stayed in touch and go out to dinner “when their schedules allow”.
And… fade to black. That’s the perfect ending, right?
Well, not exactly. Before you give in to the urge to chase your own Wall Street dream, here’s a more realistic cautionary tale – courtesy of former banker Stephen Ridley. He landed his dream job in 2009 – and lasted 16 months. “The only models were Excel models,” he says, “the only bottles were Coca-Cola, which I drank a lot of to stay awake. Life is short – you’re young, you’re old, you’re dead. React to that knowledge.”
(Image: Rex, Getty)