Terence Winter

Writer Terence Winter. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times / April 29, 2013)

Within the opening pages of Jordan Belfort's memoir, "The Wolf of Wall Street," I felt a certain familiarity; like him, I was always obsessed with becoming rich.

During high school, I worked three part-time jobs simultaneously, delivering meat for the neighborhood butcher, working as a waiter at a local synagogue and on Sundays, waxing cars.

To fuel my ambition, I'd wander the furniture department at Macy's, coveting the leather couches and Persian rugs I'd one day be able to afford. But my preparation for untold wealth didn't end there.

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Knowing I'd need such things for my future mansion, I mailed away for the Franklin Mint's "Art Treasures of the Louvre" mini-ingot collection, a set of engraved silver coins so tiny they came with a magnifying glass. At night under the covers, I imagined my rich friends and I in my wood-paneled library, sipping port (whatever that was) while passing that magnifying glass back and forth, soaking in the opulence that was the miniature "Mona Lisa."

Yes, I wanted very much to be rich, but hard work alone was getting me nowhere; I needed to go to Wall Street. So I headed to college and then to law school, where I attended classes at night while working for Merrill Lynch during the day. Eventually, I landed an interview to become a bond trader, a job that could earn me millions. My meeting was scheduled for Oct. 19, 1987 — the worst day on Wall Street since the crash of '29. By the close of the market, my dreams of wealth were hopelessly dashed. Would I ever make it to Macy's?

Flash forward to Hollywood 2007, where during the previous 20 years I'd traded the fantasy of becoming very rich for the reality of becoming very happy with what I do for a living. My agent sends me "The Wolf of Wall Street" to consider adapting into a screenplay. I read about Jordan and his childhood desire to be rich at all costs.

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He'd begun as an ambitious kid from Queens, hawking Italian ices on the beach, eventually dropping out of dental school and failing in a wholesale meat venture before finding his way to Wall Street. As in my own life, the crash of '87 sent him in a new direction, me to Hollywood but him to Long Island, into the "boiler room" world where he began hustling dubious penny stocks.

He began drawing lines for himself in the sand, things he swore he'd never do, then he crossed those lines. He became a serial philanderer, abusing more drugs than a rock band, a man accused of bilking investors out of millions. Eventually, through a combination of Quaaludes and rationalization, he found himself up to his neck in very hot water.

I understood this guy. I could have become this guy. But how could I make an audience understand him? The answer was to let Jordan speak for himself.

It was a conscious choice on my part as a screenwriter to employ voice-over, a storytelling device used to great effect by Martin Scorsese in "Goodfellas" and "Casino." We'd let Jordan speak directly to the audience, "selling them" his story. Throughout the insanity and debaucherous fun, we'd never show you the people on the other ends of those telephones, the anonymous masses taken in by dishonest brokers, the "schmucks" hoping to get rich quick.

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If you'd start to question the ethics of this despicable on-screen behavior, there'd be plenty to distract you. Lavish beach houses, designer clothes, girls in bikinis, Ferraris by the dozen. And that is precisely the point.

We live in a society that applauds the accumulation of wealth while rarely questioning the means by which it is acquired. It doesn't matter how you get those diamonds as long as you get them.

The human animal is greedy by nature, and though we may tell ourselves otherwise, any one of us could have become a Jordan Belfort given the right circumstances.

Who knows how many kids are out there, worshiping at the altar of the Kardashians, convinced that bling is the answer to all of life's questions.

Until we stop valuing consumption for consumption's sake, there'll be a lot more wolves prowling Wall Street.

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