My Miserable Night at Jordan Belfort's Groupon Sales Seminar
Self-help with the "Wolf of Wall Street"
It’s 6:45 p.m. on a Wednesday night, and I’m nearly an hour into a sales pitch called “The Truth Behind His Success.” A couple hundred other people sit in stiff plastic chairs in the Los Angeles Convention Center, seeking transformation.
"My dad f—ing hated salespeople. Salesman equals slime and bucket," Jordan Belfort says as he strides across the stage. "The truth is, selling is everything in life. You're selling or you're failing."
That's Jordan Belfort, aka the “Wolf of Wall Street” played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the Martin Scorsese film of the same name. The movie grossed more the $390 million worldwide and was nominated for five Academy Awards. The Wolf of Wall Street motivational speech cost me $89 and was aggressively promoted on discount site Groupon (50 percent off!).
The world is divided between ducks and eagles, per Belfort. "The 'duck' " — he spits the word in his Long Island accent — "has a story, their bullshit story. They quack like a duck. Why can't they have what they want? Their story stops them from getting what they want. They have what I call an 'impossibility option.' "
Now eagles — eagles are different. "Eagles soar above the crowd," Belfort says, before delivering his truth. "One thing I can promise you: There's not a single duck in this room. You know why? Ducks don't come to things like this."
This is Belfort's “Straight Line: Sales & Entrepreneurship" technique. It's basically a bunch of cliches and aphorisms (“results people get shit done”; to win you need to be "sharp as a tack," "enthusiastic as hell" and "an expert in your field"). On stage he can't help interrupting himself with his own improbably wild and illegal tales, most of which were depicted in the movie, punctuated with the requisite name-dropping. ("Leo was so convincing, not just because he's a great actor but because I spent months working with him.")
Read more The Wolf of Wall Street: Film Review
Then again, truth tends to bend in Belfort's world. This is a guy who swindled $110 million from his investors in a "pump and dump" scheme over worthless penny stocks.
Just ask Joel M. Cohen, the federal prosecutor who got Belfort to flip on his friends and colleagues within 48 hours. Even the nickname is misleading: "Belfort invented the 'Wolf of Wall Street' name for his book,” Cohen tells me over the phone. “In my months debriefing him and years investigating his firm, no one ever called him that."
On the big screen, DiCaprio's Belfort was contained sleaze, a fastball of unctuousness careening toward its target, amassing collateral damage in the form of cars, boats, strippers and friends. In real life, Belfort is scattered, restless and unfocused. He scribbles his points on a series of four easels filled with paper from Office Depot, the handwriting indecipherable. He strides up and down the stage, marker in hand. He's less Tony Robbins, more buff guy at the gym who doles out unsolicited workout advice.
Dressed in a white golf shirt, black suit pants and $500 Golden Goose sneakers, he’s rockin' the ex-con life pretty well. He's buff and bombastic, full of unrepentant braggadocio. Belfort relishes every detail about sinking an $167 million yacht while overdosing on quaaludes, not to mention boasting that he cheated on his wife. It was with a “six-foot tall Ethiopian,” he says, holding on to the moment. “When was I going to get a chance to do that again?”
Humbled he's not. Then again, he's the first to admit his 22 months of incarceration weren’t exactly hardcore. "I was in a not-so-bad jail. I wasn't getting butt-f—ed by Bubba every night." He pauses while the audience laughs. "I really wasn't, by the way."
His cell mate was Tommy Chong, (yes, of Cheech and Chong), who told Belfort his stories were too outrageous not to put down. Belfort brags that he taught himself to write, and that The New York Times book review said "I wrote like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson were my mentors."
The Wolf brings a friend on stage to pitch a real estate deal. It's a guaranteed method to make money off real estate, with "no upfront fees, no credit check and no income verification." (You can also work from home). Curiously, he detailed the subprime mortgage meltdown and the financial crisis while using the same pitch the banks used for "liars' loans" — in a 40-minute live infomercial. Seems outrageous to me, but people around me are buying into it.
"It's an asset play. There's no risk. I'm making nothing off of this," Belfort says from the sidelines, between sips of red Gatorade. He says he just wants to share the opportunity with us. "But there's not much more time to get in on it." About 40 people take the cue. Belfort’s friend shows a slide of a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house that he says his students bought for $110,000 and flipped for an $86,300 profit. (A Zillow listing of the property reveals it's a two-bedroom, one-bath home. It's currently listed at $284,900 and was sold last July for $275,000. The listing agent didn’t return my requests for comment.)
After about 40 minutes, Belfort retakes the stage. It's now way past 9 p.m. and he doesn’t look to be wrapping up anytime soon. Belfort says that after he’s done he'll answer questions, "but about business, not just drugs and prostitutes." I head to the back of the room.
A financial planner and his tax lawyer friend are standing there, arms folded and shaking their heads. The planner tells me he's going to try to get a refund; he's insulted by the pitch. Apparently I just missed a woman and her husband who paid $500 each for VIP seats and a one-on-one meet-and-greet. They wanted a refund as well.
Just shy of four hours, Belfort finally starts to wind down. He offers to hook people up for his three-day seminar for just $1,997 if 100 of us sign up. Apparently this is a $10,000 value.
It’s not entirely clear how much money Belfort is making from this tour, or how much of the $110,362,993.87 in restitution he owes the federal government he’s actually paying. According to an Oct. 11, 2013, letter from the Department of Justice, Belfort has coughed up just over $11 million — but has taken the stance that since he’s now free, he’s no longer obligated to pay.
That’s about $99 million still owed to his victims.
The day after the Los Angeles talk, I call Belfort's agency to figure out how much money he’s making. Anne Koppe "from Jordan Belfort's office" calls me back, immediately launching into a rant about how he wants to pay back restitution but the government is holding it up because the lawyers want to take their share in fees (U.S. attorneys are salaried, they do not bill by the hour). Belfort, in fact, pays more than what's required, she says. (Anne Koppe was also the name of Belfort’s fiance when THR interviewed him earlier this year.)
Koppe insists that he's not making any money off the U.S. tour — but when asked about international bookings, she replies, “Well, we have to eat."
His speaking fees range from nothing for charity events, she says — to $100,000 a day. The Justice Department maintains that Belfort holds money in his Australian company that it is unable to access.
But what about the Wolf's claims that he would make $100 million on his speaking tour? She laughs. "That's just Jordan Belfort being Jordan Belfort. You have to dream big. That way if you fail, you're still rich."
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Nov. 4, 10:43 a.m. Headline updated.