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Jordan Belfort, the Real Wolf of Wall Street

Belfort's boiler room scam sent him to prison. Now Leonardo DiCaprio is starring in the movie about his life, and the former stock swindler is back in business, advising top companies how to be ethical
Leonardo DiCaprio as Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, out on Dec. 25

Leonardo DiCaprio as Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, out on Dec. 25

Photographer: Mary Cybulski/Paramount Pictures

Jordan Belfort, aka the Wolf of Wall Street, hates it when people describe him as a criminal. “‘Convicted stock swindler’—it’s like it hurts my heart,” he says, practically shuddering. “I know it was true, but it’s not who I am. I say to my son, I say it to everybody who I try to mentor: We are not the mistakes of our past. We’re the resources and capabilities that we glean from our past. And it’s so true.”

It’s a delicate argument for Belfort to make. He will forever be associated with Stratton Oakmont, the Long Island penny-stock boiler room he ran in the 1990s. Stratton employed more than 1,000 brokers at its peak, before the Securities and Exchange Commission shut down the company and the FBI arrested Belfort, in 1998. Convicted of money laundering and securities fraud in 2003, he received a four-year prison sentence—he served only 22 months—and was ordered to repay $110.4 million to a victim compensation fund. Other terms for the kind of outfit he built and ran are “pump and dump” and “chop-shop.” The words “fraud” and “crook” come up frequently as well. “It chokes me up a little when I think about it. … I was a bad guy. And it wasn’t like I started that way,” he says, his voice becoming tight. “You can get desensitized to your own actions—it’s easy on Wall Street. Before you know it, it’s like everyone’s just a number.” He goes on: “I shouldn’t really care what people think of me. … I know I’m good. But of course I do care.”