Crime and Punishment

An interview with the real 'Wolf of Wall Street'

Jordan Belfort and Leonardo DiCaprio
Getty Images

Long before Leonardo DiCaprio started shooting scenes recreating the drinking, drugging and debauchery of the '90s for the Martin Scorsese film "The Wolf of Wall Street," CNBC profiled the man behind the story, Jordan Belfort.

Belfort went to federal prison for bilking clients out of millions of dollars at the Long Island firm he founded, Stratton Oakmont. "I was a careful criminal," he told CNBC back in 2007. "Probably an archcriminal."

His fraud worked like this: Belfort gave his brokers—often young people who didn't even need a high school diploma—a pitch speech for clients. Twice a day he'd fire them up to make calls.

Their targets were usually well-to-do individuals who were pitched a traditional blue chip stock first, in order to make Stratton Oakmont seem legitimate. Then they were pitched a little known IPO. Belfort owned shares of iffy companies going public and would sell them to clients as prices neared their peaks. Clients would continue to make money for about six to eight months, before shares almost always collapsed, wiping them out.

(Read more: 2014—The year of the CEO in handcuffs?)

A constant turnover in clients kept Belfort and his staff swimming in millions. He spent his fortune lavishly on Coco Chanel's former yacht (which he later sank in a storm while high on Quaaludes), a Long Island mansion once owned by former NYSE Chairman and CEO Richard Grasso, and drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.

At one point, Belfort said he was using 22 different drugs in order to balance everything out.

"It was insane," he said.

Meet the 'real' Wolf of Wall Street

After a long investigation during which Belfort claims he even bugged the room where Security and Exchange Commission investigators were working, Belfort was finally caught and convicted. He served 22 months in a California federal prison, where his cellmate was Tommy Chong of "Cheech and Chong" fame.

The video here is the story we aired on CNBC in 2007 profiling Belfort, back when his book was just being released. At that point, he was renting a home in Manhattan Beach, Calif., so he could be close to his children. He was living off his book advance and the option paid for his story as a movie, telling us at the time that DiCaprio was "interested" in the role.

In hindsight, the story is interesting for its timing. Belfort is speaking in 2007, before the banking collapse, as subprime mortgages were still being issued and packaged together to be resold to investors, and while Bernie Madoff was still stealing from investors. It's a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

These days, Belfort is a motivational speaker and consultant. The U.S. Attorney's office says that of the $110 million he owes in restitution, he has paid less than $12 million. Prosecutors filed a motion saying Belfort had reneged on his agreement to pay 50 percent of his income toward his judgment, but they later withdrew that motion, "to give the United States an opportunity to review documents to be provided by Mr. Belfort, and the parties an opportunity to explore a resolution of outstanding issues."

"I deserved to get caught, and I'm happy I got caught," Belfort told us in 2007, starting to put the past behind him. This Christmas, that past will be played out on the big screen. Given public opinion about Wall Street, a story portraying an unethical wolf in wolf's clothing may seem timely.

"I did my time, and I'm paying back," Belfort told us. "This is my chance now to live the rest of my life in a positive way."

—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter @janewells.