In the pantheon of iconic movie one-liners, there’s no line more misunderstood than, “Greed is … good.” These few simple words have been continually and misguidedly appropriated by budding stockbrokers, day traders and fellow capitalists alike as a sort of badge of honor. A definition of debauchery. A credo for corruption. As fictional Wall Street mogul Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) addresses a room full of board members of a failing company and announces, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good,” his words unknowingly inspired thousands of real, finance-driven minds, both young and old — but for all the wrong reasons.
Just after it was first released in 1987, Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” hit theaters months after “Black Monday” — the largest stock market crash in the United States since 1929. When the eyes of the nation were fixed on the enigmatic “movers and shakers” of Wall Street, Stone and company shined a spotlight on the inner workings of the financial sector of New York City. In terms of realism, “Wall Street” hits the nail on the head.
Every word screamed, deal sealed and dollar spent in the film uncannily captures the frenetic, dog-eat-dog mentality of day trading and stock brokerage. Were it not for the greater thematic machinations at work or the distinguishability of stars Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen, the film could pass as a made-for-TV documentary on CNBC. And why? Because Stone knew that such hyperrealism better portrays the unabashed villainy of these mild-mannered businessmen.
The story goes that Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a naïve stockbroker, meets his hero, Gekko, who essentially entices him into performing illicit activities in pursuit of money and power. Eventually, Fox comes to his senses and turns against his mentor for the sake of what’s right. The foundational story is simplistic yet well-executed, but what makes “Wall Street” so indescribably important and impactful is its timeless real-world applicability.
Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy
This is a film that demystifies one of the most exclusive circles in corporate America, if not the world. What Stone very brilliantly reveals in the film is the fatal flaw of Wall Street, stock brokerage and capitalism as whole: humanity. As Douglas consistently and masterfully articulates throughout the film, greed is what compels men and women to work harder, reach further and take more than they need in life. It’s essentially a basic instinct, intrinsic to any human. Greed inspires, motivates and reminds individuals what he or she is really seeking, and it’s what puts them ahead of others in life. But we can’t change humanity, only the rules that it plays by, an idea the United States has yet to heed.
Since the film’s original release in 1987, the United States has experienced devastating mortgage, banking and housing crises — all three of which contributed to the financial crisis of 2008, the worst period of economic instability in the country since the Great Depression. The cause rang true in 1987 and 2008: power over finances of the many in the hands of very, very few.
Gekko even admits in the film, “The richest 1 percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth.”
What Stone saw in ’87, what Gekko sees and what those who seek to emulate the latter fail to comprehend is how broken the capitalist and so-called ‘free market’ is. Its very structure, the opportunity to cheat for self-gain, for power, is so predominant and tempting that it practically invites subversion of established rules and regulations. It rewards those who seek to manipulate it for their own selfish ends.
When banks and companies such as Lehman Brothers, AIG and Merrill Lynch were bankrupted, bailed out by the government or bought by competing corporations in 2008, it was because of their complicity with fraudulent mortgage, loan and banking practices. Though their businesses were set back, they did not suffer nearly as much as the American people, whom they were meant to serve. Yet again, the wealth and power concentrated in the hands of the few had catastrophic consequences for the many.
Twentieth Century Fox/Courtesy
“Wall Street” bluntly portrayed the callousness of those with immense wealth and therefore power when making decisions they knew would impact the lives of millions — a fact of the rich that has received significant push back in recent years. Films such as “Margin Call,” “Too Big to Fail” and “The Big Short” have all demonstrated the ease with which those with power in Wall Street consistently undermine the so-called ‘free market.’ Movements such as Occupy Wall Street in 2011, which protested the precedent of economic inequality in the United States, show that the nation is no longer simply content with complacency.
But most importantly, now that we have a president hell-bent on running the nation like a business, “Wall Street” becomes evermore important as an incisive look at the psyche of those who seek profit above all else. Laws will come and go to try and regulate an economic system that has shown us time and time again that it favors those who would exploit it. The sad truth behind Gordon Gekko is … that he’s right. Greed is good, but at what moral cost? Greed is good, but at whose expense? Greed is good, but it shouldn’t be.
“Wall Street” screened in several locations around the Bay Area in celebration of its 30th anniversary.