NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Jordan Belfort doesn’t deny that his life in the 1990s was all about drugs, hookers and swindling people out of millions.
There’s a reason his nickname is the “wolf of Wall Street” and he spent time in jail.
Now he wants the world — including his 1,500 victims — to see him as more of a sheep than a wolf as he tries to recast himself as a motivational speaker.
“I’ve redeemed myself. I do the right thing every day,” he told a packed auditorium Wednesday night at an event run by New York University’s School of Law and the 92nd Street Y. “I’m turning over all the profits to people who lost money.”
Belfort is required to pay back $110 million in restitution to his victims, although he still refers to them as “investors.” So far he’s handed over about $11 million.
Half of all of the proceeds he receives from book sales, speeches and the 2013 “Wolf of Wall Street” movie staring Leonardo DiCaprio should go to his victims. But some have raised questions about whether that’s happening. He has dodged the subject at public events and walked out of an Australian TV interview over it.
Belfort claims he always idolized greedy Gordon Gekko from the 1987 film “Wall Street.”
“The biggest problem is [Gekko] didn’t take the fall in the movie,” he said. “At least in the ‘Wolf of Wall Street,’ I lose everything. I go to jail.”
Belfort spent 22 months in prison. He could have gone away for more than 30 years, but he cooperated with federal prosecutors to bring down others in the stock manipulation scheme he was a part of, and he managed to get a much lighter sentence in the process.
“I take it at face value that he has gone straight. He’s tried to turn his life around,” Daniel Alonso said at the event Wednesday, appearing alongside Belfort. Alonso is a former assistant U.S. Attorney who was involved in the case.
But for a lot of people, it’s hard to think of Belfort as anything other than a crook.
He still views himself first and foremost as an expert salesman.
“Money is like alcohol. It makes you more of what you are. If you’re an asshole, it makes you a bigger asshole,” he said.
Belfort started as a stockbroker and went on to found his own brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, which was actually located on Long Island, not Wall Street. He made up the “wolf of Wall Street” moniker.
Belfort and his conspirators owned cheap stocks they were knowingly selling to others to bid up the price.
“Not a day went by where there wasn’t a voice in the back of my head saying ‘what the hell am I doing,?'” he said, noting that his life changed dramatically the day a co-conspirator handed him a bag with $300,000 in cash.
Alonso, the former prosecutor, said the movie got a lot right, especially when it came to portraying how backroom deals work with Swiss bankers and others.
“It’s relatively accurate, including in terms of debauchery,” Alonso noted.
Belfort still gets several hundred emails and letters a day about the film. He’s leveraged his fame into a global speaking tour, including gigs at corporate events.
“If you want to hang on to mistakes I made 25 years ago, that’s your prerogative,” he said.
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