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Arts and Culture

Wall Street Revisited: Greed Is Good and Dull

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Posted on Sep 24, 2010
20th Century Fox

By Richard Schickel

The best moment in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” occurs in its opening sequence. The notorious Gordon Gekko is retrieving his personal property as he checks out of the slammer after much too long a stay. Among the items handed over to the onetime Wolf of Wall Street is a cell phone that is roughly the size and shape of an orthopedic shoe. The times, we quickly, humorously perceive, have been a-changing. Gekko is soon flogging a memoir the title of which turns his most famous saying into an interrogative: “Is Greed Good?” Yes, he answers, “it’s even legal.” Which turns out to be what this astonishingly inert sequel has as a moral.

There is no longer room for free-spirited buccaneers in the world’s money markets. Their appalling and amusing ways have been co-opted, institutionalized and dulled down by the banks, brokerages and insurance companies that we all know were responsible for our current Great Recession. In its vague way, Oliver Stone’s film, written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, aspires to explain how that came to pass, but quickly throws up its hands. There are, someone says, only about 25 people in the world who fully understand things like credit default swaps—none of whom has come within hailing distance of this film, the chief business of which is to enlist our sympathy for Gekko.

This is not as hard to do as Stone and company think it is. Michael Douglas’ Gekko was always a charming and ironic rogue, who had a way of speaking cheeky truth to power while more or less cheerfully lining his own pockets. He dubiously insists that back in the day his crimes were victimless. Now, however, entire nations can be brought near to ruin by the free range of much vaster speculation (and peculation) not so much managed as ridden by people as faceless as they are feckless.

That leaves Gekko—his family ruined, a son and a wife lost, his only daughter deeply estranged while he is himself pretty much down to his last, slightly encumbered $100 million—as the movie’s sole point of interest. He wants to make up with his daughter (Carey Mulligan), an idealistic Internet entrepreneur, who is engaged to Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a Wall Street trader heavily (and also idealistically) invested in an alternative energy start-up. Along the way, young Jake wishes to gain revenge on a powerful, charmless Wall Streeter (Josh Brolin) who ruined Jake’s kindly old mentor (Frank Langella).

As you can see, there’s a ton of plot in this picture—the family aspects of which we have experienced in many previous movies and TV shows, the financial aspects of which are murky and unfocused. Feel free to consult your mental cheat sheets in order to stay a couple of jumps ahead of Gekko and his get. Feel equally free to try to “follow the money” as Deep Throat so wisely advised us a few centuries ago. But mostly what we do is follow expensively tailored men into boardrooms where they threaten to crush one another with incomprehensible financial blather, angry outbursts and nasty sneers. As an alternative, they are often discovered wandering through Manhattan’s streets and parks (or riding its subways)—it’s called “opening up” the picture—murmuring threats and speaking of schemes so veiled they sound like invitations to the office Christmas party.

The inherent problem with this film is that it does not have the courage of its own nastiest convictions. In some part of their souls—or in the souls of the actors playing them —leading characters like Gordon Gekko want to be liked. No actor this side of Klaus Kinsky really wants to be fully loathed, and we in the audience are complicit in this desire. We want to confine flat-out villainy to the edges of the picture, where the character actors live their colorful half-lives. But if we cannot understand what is moving these people, if their plots and counterplots are not clear to us, the film dwindles in our eyes. This was a problem in the first “Wall Street” and it reaches crisis proportion here. The more a rather weary Gordon Gekko comes to resemble his namesake, that cute, earnest little lizard in the Geico commercials, the less entertaining he is. He occasionally smirks knowingly, but really he’s just another sad dad suing everyone for favor.

The film speaks from time to time about “moral hazard,” a concept people keep fruitlessly trying to explain to me. But what about “amoral hazard”—the idea that the big money has became so nimble, and faceless, that it is beyond anyone’s ability to understand, regulate or convincingly dramatize? I guess that, by default—that impotence—is finally, subtextually, what this film is about. But if some financial institutions are too big to fail, the current state of the financial world is too vaguely defined to succeed narratively. As this movie’s subtitle would have it, “money never sleeps.” But movie audiences are frequently on the cusp of that state. And this is a movie that perversely grants them their need—a few blissful moments in the Land of Nod.

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Napolean DoneHisPart's avatar

By Napolean DoneHisPart, September 27, 2010 at 9:47 pm Link to this comment

You can learn more about economics in the next 12 minutes than trying to decipher the ridiculousness of what is considered news on tv.

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By Dan De Vries, September 27, 2010 at 8:09 pm Link to this comment

What a pleasure to have a chance to read Richard Schickel again.  One of the very best.

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By Donald Diedrick, September 27, 2010 at 8:24 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

By ML-Sep25-1009AM :  Thank you ML,for articulating the importance of simple pleasures of life.Your last sentence of giving to receive sometimes takes a lifetime to be understood & accepted,but that is the real"bottom line”!

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By Susan, September 27, 2010 at 3:29 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s Kinski, guys.

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Napolean DoneHisPart's avatar

By Napolean DoneHisPart, September 26, 2010 at 9:53 am Link to this comment

M L, you hit it RIGHT ON THE NAIL!!!

That ‘other’ invisible party owned by money manipulating changers…. is the non-natural part which corrupts and upsets the natural balance you describe.

Reminds of what this lovely voiced-gal sang which hasn’t changed an instance throughout HISsTORY-

Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Money, you’ve got lots of friends
Crowding round the door
When you’re gone, spending ends
They don’t come no more
Rich relations give
Crust of bread and such
You can help yourself
But don’t take too much
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own
He just worry ‘bout nothin’
Cause he’s got his own

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Napolean DoneHisPart's avatar

By Napolean DoneHisPart, September 26, 2010 at 9:48 am Link to this comment

Good guy, bad guy, dreams of getting rich / hitting it big… Amerikan Dream re-cast again…. haven’t seen but I like Michael Douglas and will write Oliver a letter and tell him if I thought it was weak or not…

Anyone follow the stock market here or a buddy of yours does?

I see MAJOR discrepancies in FOX Business showing the graphs of the S&P 500 in this interview with Marc Faber…

Aside from Marc giving great advice, check out how WRONG the graphs are to other tracking services like google, yahoo or your trading platform or your stock trading friend.. the FOX graphs are actually showing a completely different picture…. I couldn’t make sense of it at first, thought I was totally confused or looking at another year.—doom-market-report

Can you believe the NERVE of these people distorting things so blatantly?!?!?

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By knute, September 26, 2010 at 7:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Greed has been a virtue since Saint Reagan and as the republican’s continue to worship at the altar of greed, they kiss the feet of the man that helped usher in the mess we find ourselves in. But I think its viewed alittle differently by the wealthy few who have it all. They are in control, they plan on keeping it that way with the help of BOTH parties in congress…and it appears they will get their way. Both the repug.s and the whimpocrats are in the congress to train for their lucrative lobbying jobs when they decide to leave office. We the people have little to say about it. The last administration stole the last two elections thru a miriad of criminal activities without hardly a whimper from the electorate, and whats to stop them ? This hasn’t been a democracy for atleast a generation now, the last remains are being swept away by the New World Order ( insert Class War here ) heralded in by Bush Sr. with the help of both sides of the isle in congress. There is no hope in this country of creating a 3rd party without it being bankrolled by the corporate state unless we tear it all down first.

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Lafayette's avatar

By Lafayette, September 25, 2010 at 10:30 pm Link to this comment


Gordon Gekko (aka Ivan Boesky, who actually coined the phrase “Greed is good”), is a Wall Street role-model. Boesky actually said:

I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.

That role model springs from the well of American ambition that personifies itself in accumulated riches as the Hallmark of Success.

Ours is a world where being second is tantamount to instant death. We are a heavily competitive nation as witnessed through the amount of time and money spent on “sports”, which has become a vicarious national pastime.  Just like the Romans whose emperors spent whatever necessary to put on the “games” in the arenas which where commonplace in Roman cities that could afford to build one.

In America, following sports on the Boob-Tube is more of a passion than watching the arcane politics of LaLaLand on the Potomac. Which is not surprising, given how patently dull the latter is to observe. Thanks to a craven political class that places personal ambition above their supposed duty to represent the constituency that elected them.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Especially if people behave like sheep ready for shearing. Whatever happened to the Golden Fleece Award? It’s perhaps high-time to bring it back into usage.

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By cabs, September 25, 2010 at 5:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

what about the rest of us? we watch our public schools and parks and other services diminish. we are effected and will continue to be. our national treasures lost to mountaintop removal with clean water gone and the gulf. these are all connected. the uranium mining of aboriginal lands for nuclear power. the waste…where does it go? the aberration of our food by gmo’s.the quality of our life continually eroded by the blind greed of people who run our government and the world

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By gerard, September 25, 2010 at 4:08 pm Link to this comment

THE big money film will bring a fat greedy bastard at the top of the ladder face to face with some small-town political sleeze who “wants to be a millionaire.”  When both look in the same mirror at the same time, they see, not themselves but the face of the other.

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By Hammond Eggs, September 25, 2010 at 10:48 am Link to this comment

“No actor this side of Klaus Kinsky really wants to be fully loathed”

Robert Mitchum and George C. Scott never minded.  See “Night of the Hunter” and “The Hustler”, respectively.

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By M L, September 25, 2010 at 6:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Money will drive but never enrich their lives. They are to be pitied because they will never enjoy the simple pleasures of life: A kind word, a gentle handshake and helping one other life breath a little easier. There is a natural law of nature that the three things we crave the most: happiness, peace of mind and freedom can only be attained by giving them to someone else.

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mrfreeze's avatar

By mrfreeze, September 24, 2010 at 7:45 pm Link to this comment

What so astonishes me is that Stone felt the need to revisit the “Wall Street” universe when, in fact, all one needs to do is look at the financial/economic news every day and see Gekko-like criminals plying their trade in full view…........It’s a show BETTER than Stone can make. And, these a-moral monsters are ADMIRED by the public. Everyone wants to be them in spite of their uber-avarice and utter narcissism.

Instead of dabbling in fiction, what Stone should do is start making training films on how to screw our neighbors, profiteer from the misery of others and basically do whatever it takes to become rich….....Why not? Isn’t this the only goal Americans understand in today’s world?

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