Jordan Belfort

Jordan Belfort Has A New Book Out & Says His Notorious Life Felt 'Normal'

The 'Wolf of Wall Street' talks DiCaprio, flying private, and 'the greatest redemption story, ever.'

This is the first of a two-part interview.

Jordan Belfort seems like a readily identifiable New York type. Good-humored, fast-talking, hair-confident. Popular at weddings.

But Belfort transcended the type in a singular way, to say the least, by embarking on a life so improbable and transgressive that even the highwire act Tommy Chong said it would make a great book, which became The Wolf of Wall Street; a life so excessive and full of incident that no less an auteur than Martin Scorsese would turn the ribald memoir into a blockbuster movie in 2013; a life that translated so easily into a sui generis burlesque of the American dream that Belfort would become something of a household name.

Belfort’s life was so outrageous and unhinged that even his publisher Bantam Books (a Random House subsidiary) toned it down. Scorsese (Killers of the Flower Moon, etc.), the streetwise filmmaker not known to pull his cinematic punches, directed the acclaimed film, which Belfort says was “under-exaggerated.” Tell that to Leonardo DiCaprio, who won a Golden Globe for portraying Belfort engaging in some of the most hedonistic behavior ever committed to celluloid.

In a rare moment of understatement, Belfort says the film based on his life enjoys a cult following, but the broad biopic comedy did massive business, earning more than $400 million at the global box office and notching its place as Scorsese’s biggest hit: bigger even than Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. The Bronx-born former stockbroker who was found guilty of money laundering and securities fraud in 1999—then was sent to federal prison for 22 months—put popcorn in more laps than Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, or Henry Hill, assuming his place in the iconography of arguably the greatest living American director.

It certainly helped to be played by DiCaprio, who took a bite out of the part of Belfort and never stopped eating. But mostly, it was that gilded freakshow of a story, told in that voracious way.

BJT caught up with the fit and sun-burnished 61-year-old Belfort at his Miami Beach home, with Biscayne Bay glistening in the background, a can of Red Bull the strongest substance in view. Now Belfort has a rollicking new book out—The Wolf of Investing—and it’s filled with bracing financial advice and the Wolf’s signature profanity. (With BJT, he shared the former if not the latter.) Barely tempered by time, Belfort reveled in decades-old memories of hallucinatory excess and outrageous fortune—and offered plainspoken advice for would-be investors.

Typically, when I do an interview, the team or the interviewee’s rep asks me to send topics in advance. But you didn’t. We grew up in similar circumstances—New York area, our parents were accountants—but the difference is you don't live a risk-averse life.

I was raised with that, but I didn't adopt it. I think you go the same way as your parents do in terms of your belief systems—or the exact opposite way. My parents were risk-averse. I embrace risk. It's just that my parents had a Depression-era mentality, resistant to change in any shape or form, so that was what I grew up around. I just never bought into that myself, so I guess I'm built differently from my parents. I didn't ask you to send me questions because I've been asked everything. It’s just better if nothing's off-limits.

We both graduated from American University—you were an undergrad in biology, and I went there as a master’s student—a very conventional type of place to go to school. And then we go these two completely different directions. Did you ever imagine that your life would be composed of such extremes?

I didn't think it was that insane. It's your life and it's one step at a time and I think you become desensitized to things along the way. So, it really seems insane if you just dump it out all at once, but in little incremental steps, it doesn't seem crazy. When I first started telling my story to someone, I was in jail and my bunkmate was [comedian] Tommy Chong from Cheech and Chong [who served nine months in federal prison for distributing drug paraphernalia]. I would tell him my story and he would say, “I'm Tommy Chong, and I think you've had an insane lifestyle.” To me, it didn't seem that insane, but I started writing it down. Looking back at it, yes, it was a wild life. I always try to be the best at whatever I do and even if I'm doing a bad thing, unfortunately it’s going to be the best bad thing as well.

Was it day one, day two, or day 10 that you told Tommy Chong about—I can't describe it as a yachting accident—the yachting catastrophe off the coast of Italy?

Probably, yeah, I think I day two. Certainly in the first couple of days.

When that was happening, you must have been thinking, I'm living a very cinematic life, to say the least.

Yeah, I guess I was kind of happy it was happening. I was like, Oh, man, this [yacht] is gonna be an albatross around my neck. I hated that, was sick of the boat, and I felt obligated to go on it. When it started to sink, I'm like, Oh, great, [insurer] Lloyds of London. You know, I never really thought I was going to die. There were a couple of moments where I was very nervous. And then the plane crashed picking me up—the Gulfstream GIIB had seagulls fly in the engine. I traveled badly.

In the movie, the shipwreck seemed like full-on Poseidon Adventure.

It was much worse than that because it lasted for like 18 hours, so it was a very drawn-out affair, and there were a lot of times when we thought we'd have to go into the lifeboats.

I guess we should talk about the helicopter crash, too, before we get into the pleasures of aviation.

We actually pushed the helicopter over the side of the boat to make room for the Italian Navy SEALS to rescue us. But I also crashed my helicopter many times in my backyard. When you're young, you think you're invincible. I don't think I'm invincible anymore. I’m in a very sober frame of mind.

It was more than once that you crashed your helicopter in your backyard, right?

Yeah, it was more than once.

How does private aviation figure into your life now? How often are you flying privately?

I fly private very often whenever I can, but unfortunately the price has gone up tremendously in the last couple of years. I'm considering buying a plane. It’s getting close to the point where it's not cost-prohibitive—but it used to be much more economical. It used to cost, to fly coast-to-coast, in a Citation or a Gulfstream V, $23,000 to $28,000 one way, and now it's like 50 percent higher, at least.

That would surprise a lot of people, that you're ever worried about expense at this point.

But I fly for business. It’s one thing if I'm going on vacation with my family, but if I'm flying for business—especially if I'm on tour—it has to make sense for the tour. Let's say I’m booked to do a speech in California and they're paying me $150,000, with a travel budget of $10,000. Round trip’s going to cost me $75,000. Do I want to eat into the money that I would be paid to be there? Sometimes I'll subsidize it myself or sometimes I'll just demand the higher travel reimbursement; sometimes I’ll fly commercial. Whenever I can, I fly private.

So, these are your two main sources of income right now—the books, which enhance the speaking engagements, and the speaking engagements that enhance the sales of the books?

No, mostly my biggest source of income is from consulting for companies, by far.

How many days in a year do you think you're giving a motivational speech?

Maybe about 50 times a year, but it goes in waves.

Among your audience members, how many are there because of the starstruck factor, and how many really want financial or life goals advice?

I think it's mostly advice they want. Certainly, the brand and the movie help people find out about me. I guess some people want to hear funny stories, but I think, far and away, the vast majority are looking for advice in terms of sales, financial advice, entrepreneurship advice, motivation.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Warner Brother's won the bidding war to adapt your story, but were there other actors in the mix who could have played you?

Brad Pitt was also in the bidding, as was Mark Wahlberg.

How well did you get to know DiCaprio?

Very well. We spent about a year together, a lot of time, and some of it was just social, and some of it was preparing certain scenes in the movie and going through the script, ironing out inconsistencies that we thought could be made better, but we spent a lot of time together. Leo’s very diligent. He’s talented naturally, but he prepares, and he doesn't leave anything up to chance.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.