The dream of Jordan Belfort is still alive — just tweaked, for ethical reasons.
You can feel it when Belfort, best known as “The Wolf of Wall Street,” walks into a giant conference room at New York’s grand-lite Marriott Marquis to scream-shout his latest motivational master class.
His face is partially frozen from Bell’s Palsy. His voice has been torn to raspy shreds by a yeast infection he recently developed in his throat. Still, when The Wolf finally lumbers onto the stage to kick off his master class in sales, he roars to his hangry fans about the issues dearest to their hearts — family, money, the sins of political correctness — and they bark their loyal barks right back.
“Getting rich is the easiest thing in the world if you know how to do it,” Belfort howls to his pack. I’m not sold on this, to put it lightly, and I don’t think everyone in the room quite is either. It’s also functionally irrelevant. Five years after Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street touched Oscar ground, Belfort’s fans have made it clear they don’t really care what he’s selling. They’re just still so in love with his pitch.
There is no better salesman for the Trump era than Jordan Belfort.
Belfort’s been practically hyperactive since The Wolf of Wall Street first hit theaters in 2013. After publishing his third book, Way of the Wolf: Straight Line Selling: Master the Art of Persuasion, Influence and Success, he has made the rounds on motivational lecture circuit, drumming up his fanbase and stirring up a few serious legal dramas along the way.
His current success shouldn’t come as a shock. There is no better salesman for the Trump era than Jordan Belfort. The two grew up in adjacent neighborhoods in Queens. Both still magically maintain an anti-elitist, alpha male working class aura, despite having net worths in the hundreds of millions of dollars (at least at some point in their lives). Even with scandals — prison for Belfort, for Trump, 4,095 lawsuits and prison a distinct possibility in his future — men still look up to these two as quasi-spiritual business leaders. Ethical lapses and political correctness be totally motherfucking damned.
There was a reasonably healthy turnout (a few hundred people by my admittedly informal count) when I attended a master class Belfort taught, as part of Synergy Global Forums, on a miserable Thursday in New York City. The majority of guests paid upwards of $400 to be there — breakfast not included. (Not even a supermarket mini-muffin, my friends.) And their love for the guy felt sincere.
One attendee randomly approached me in the elevator to tell me that that, after reading Jordan’s book, his sales quadrupled. (The same man also asked me to operate the elevator for him, as his complimentary female secretary for the day!) Another fanboy I met revealed that he came all the way from the Philippines to present Belfort with a Vermeer-esque portrait his best friend had made of The Wolf.
The portrait in question.
Image: photo courtesy of jobe nkemakolam, portrait by maestro abayan
I asked one young attendee, Jake, if it felt strange to be taking business cues from a man whose own business model sent him to prison.
“Not at all,” he tells me. “Those ferraris!”
The air was thick with admiration and Nordrstrom cologne.
Jordan kicks off the lecture by discussing his various medical impairments — the Bell’s Palsy, the anti-fungal medication — which might seem a little bit off-putting, unless you’re from the metropolitan area like I am and know that’s actually totally a thing around here. Fact: people love to talk about and listen to stories about medical ailments.
After a few minutes of digressions, including one very painful moment where he joked about the #MeToo movement sending him “to my grave” (ha?), I find myself plugged into Belfort’s description of his “Straight Line System” for sales.
“Every human being has to have a vision,” Belfort says, like a pastor. “People flock to people who have a vision for the future.”
In between sips of Red Bull, Belfort bangs out his sales commandments like he’s Moses of the Marriott Marquis.
Belfort then enjoins the entire crowd to spend a few minutes sketching out their vision for the next few years. If we want to sell, we need to have vision. If we don’t have vision, Belfort warns us, we won’t be able to turn anything we want into reality.
I’m not sure if Belfort’s axiom is 100% true. I’m pretty sure there are other reasons no one wanted to buy my Princess Di Beanie Baby collection on eBay, outside of my lack of vision. But it’s his absolute confidence that carries him through this and the rest of his lecture. In between sips of Red Bull, Belfort bangs out his sales commandments like he’s Moses of the Marriott Marquis.
“From your first word, you’re JUDGED …. You’ve got four seconds to establish that you are sharp as a tack and enthusiastic as hell,” The Wolf rasps.
Real wolves use permanent markers.
Image: synergy global forums
The next few hours are all about key sales strategems, spoken in italics: Voice matters. We’ve got to demonstrate the “I care tonality.” We’ve got to seem like reasonable men. There has to be intrigue. Mystery. Sincerity. Implied obviousness. We’ve got to declare yourself on the phone. But also ask real questions. We can’t ever fucking lose our certainty. Confidence is the whole damn game.
We’ve been “downward conditioned and taught not to stand out,” Belfort warns. Every person in that room could stand to take a few lessons from the one and only… Bill Clinton.
The Moses of the Marriott Marquis
Image: synergy global forums
“Find your Rembrandts,” Belfort begs of us, and while I’m not quite sure what it means, I enjoy the sound of it, and make a quiet note to plaster it on a tote bag some day. This is liberation theology for the wannabe millionaires of the world.
Of course, it’s kind of strange to see Belfort use a clip of his earlier, corrupt self as seen in The Wolf of Wall Street as an instructional example. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about lowering people’s “action thresholds,” as Belfort calls it, which sounds like a kind of roofie-ing of the soul.
After the clip ends, everyone in the room howls with delight. Shouldn’t we look at Belfort’s behavior in the movie — which led to four years in prison, $110 million in restitution, and people robbed of their money — as, you know, bad?
The real Belfort and his on-screen version.
Image: synergy global forums
Belfort takes a moment to emphasize the importance of ethical persuasion. The straight line system, he warns the crowd, “is very powerful,” and sales people shouldn’t “pitch people not qualified to buy.” Salespeople have to sell something real — they have to “love their product,” Belfort stresses. He feels it’s unethical to sell to people who aren’t qualified to buy whatever you’re selling. We should be empowering clients — his words, not mine — by helping them make meaningful purchases. (You hear that, people of eBay? Buying my Jerry Garcia Beanie Baby is an anti-oppression act).
“Don’t be a scumbag,” The Wolf cautions.
And because he’s The Wolf, the pack writes it down.
The Wolf is trying to teaching his pack how to talk to the wildest species of them all — other people.
Disclosure: As much as I am genetically allergic to anything associated with the word “motivation,” I can’t deny that there’s something substantive about this whole string of clichés. When I was a social worker, we used some of the same principles Jordan throws around to build meaningful relationships with clients.
People wouldn’t trust us if weren’t confident, or if we didn’t provide them with some fantasy of the future. (Or as Jordan calls it, “give them positive movies.”) We needed to be conversational, build a rapport, and move away from confrontation into something closer to an alliance.
There is a science to all of this schlock. It’s a skill. The Wolf is trying to teaching his pack how to talk to the wildest species of them all — other people.
And it works. Or at least, some if does. Jordan Belfort has sold Jordan Belfort very well. He’s followed his own advice and sold people the ultimate positive movie — his life story, and the promise of their own redemption.
As any movie critic worth their salt will tell you, a story doesn’t have to be true to make it worth watching.