Sunday, October 6, 2013

Greed is Good

Film: Wall Street
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I mentioned yesterday the abrupt rise and fall of Alicia Silverstone’s career. I could say the same thing about Charlie Sheen. The difference is that Alicia Silverstone’s career vanished because she took a role in a movie that killed it (and that of Chris O’Donnell as well). Sheen’s career imploded because he went insane. Still, before he was living on tiger blood and became a bitchin’ rock star from Mars, Sheen made some pretty interesting movies. Platoon might have been the flavor of the Sheen month for some time, but I think his early career is much more dominated by Wall Street.

I have a relationship with this film. From early 1991 to early 1996, I worked for a magazine publisher. Our company produced magazines dedicated to a number of entertainment industries. I worked on the computer game magazine. We also did a movie mag, a Wired-style internet magazine, a comic magazine, and a video game monthly, which was our flagship. After a few years, the owner of the company hired a few of his friends to create software. They are the source of my relationship with Wall Street, and it’s not a positive one. A couple of the software guys worked outside my office for 6-9 months. They were obsessed with Wall Street and watched and quoted it constantly.

Wall Street is not most associated with Charlie Sheen, but with Michael Douglas. Specifically, it is best known for Douglas’s “Greed is good” speech that shows up in the middle. I’m surprised this wasn’t on The List to begin with. While not the greatest film ever made and not Oliver Stone’s greatest film, it is the perfect vision of 1980s corporate greed and Reagan-era economic policy. This is a film about making enormous fortunes by any means, the natural child of Ivan Boesky and Robert Maxwell.

Bud Fox (Sheen) is a low-on-the-totem-pole broker who has a dream of someday hitting the big time. Every day, he calls the office of Gordon Gecko (Douglas) to see if he can broker a deal. Gecko is one of the largest financiers of his type. He is a corporate raider, a glorified shark in a $3,000 suit. What he’s looking for is a deal, and eventually, on Gecko’s birthday, Bud Fox finds it. Carl Fox (Martin Sheen), Bud’s father, works at Bluestar Airline, which is just about to receive a favorable ruling from the FAA on a crash. Using this, Bud purchases a number of shares for Gecko, making him a tidy sum.

Of course, that sort of insider information isn’t available for every company, so Gecko instructs Bud in the finer points of finding, stealing, and using insider information. The deal on which Bud cuts his teeth is designed to take money out of the pocket of Sir Lawrence Wildman (Terence Stamp), one of Gordon Gecko’s high-priced enemies. This deal nets both Gordon and Bud a vast sum. It also impresses Darien Taylor (Daryl Hannah), an interior designer and former lover of Gordon.

It all spirals out of control, of course, and it naturally returns to Bluestar, where Bud’s father works. Bud arranges for Gordon to take over the airline for a relatively small amount of money by working out agreements with the unions, allowing the airline to stay in business. But the company is more valuable broken up into pieces, which will leave Carl Fox and all of his friends out of a job. In this moment, Bud gains a conscience and seeks a way to burn Gecko for his greed and save his father’s company, which takes us through the third act.

Michael Douglas is great in this, of course, and both of the Sheens are on top of their game. Wall Street is also helped by some excellent work in smaller roles. Notable here are most of Bud’s workmates. Marvin (John C. McGinley) starts out as Bud’s friend and immediate office mate and becomes someone Bud simply moves past. It’s a thankless role, but McGinley pulls it off well. Also in important roles in the office are the three older gentlemen. There is Dan (Franklin Cover), nearing retirement age and still pitching stocks like the new guys. He is who Bud and Marv most wish to avoid being. Lou Mannheim (Hal Holbrook) is successful, with his own office, but he’s had some serious hits in the stock market as well. While not appearing much, when he does he acts as something like Bud’s conscience. Finally there is Lynch (James Karen) who is the quintessential corporate shark. Also noteworthy is James Spader as an old college friend of Bud’s who gets caught up in the dangerous world of insider trading against his will.

And then there’s Daryl Hannah. Here’s the thing about Daryl Hannah—there’s something not quite human about her in my opinion. I love her in films where she plays something that isn’t quite human. Blade Runner and Splash are excellent examples. In Wall Street she comes off as wooden. For whatever reason, I’m not convinced she can pull off playing something actually human.

The value of Wall Street isn’t that it’s a great and gripping story. It’s not really that original; it’s just a tale of rampant greed and corruption for personal gain. It’s not worth seeing specifically because of the great performances, although Michael Douglas really is brilliant in it. No, the reason Wall Street is worth anything is because there is no film that better encapsulates the rampant greed and corporate raiding culture of the Reagan era. It’s pitch-perfect for that mindset, and it’s a mindset virtually everyone except Carl Fox exhibits shamelessly.

I’ve mentioned before that I ask students on the first day of class to name a favorite film as a way of introduction. Many of my students (although it’s becoming less and less common) name Scarface as a favorite. It’s a film that has a particular hold on the gangster-wannabee segment of the population. Tony Montana is looked upon as a role model and not as something horrible and perverted. The same is true of Wall Street. Evidently, there is an entire generation of brokers inspired by the focused greed and hoarded wealth of Gordon Gecko. Sociopathic role models: only in the ‘80s.

Why to watch Wall Street: The perfect encapsulation of Reagan-era greed.
Why not to watch: Daryl Hannah is only good when she plays something non-human.


  1. I actually have yet to see Wall Street. It's one of my shame list films.

    But on your note about Scarface... yeah, I was actually talking about that on the FaceCast Overrated Films episode. I just don't understand that film's hold on wannabe gangsters (and/or actual gangsters). It's not even like he has a happy ending, either.

    1. Yeah, I don't get it, either. But there's no denying the number of people who look at Tony Montana as a role model. I prefer my role models to not die in a hail of bullets caused by their own stupidity.

  2. For whatever reason this film didn't do much for me. I didn't dislike it, but it's not one I'd ever watch again, either. I didn't include it in my Misquoted Movies category because of this. ("Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.") It might be because when Reagan was taking from the poor and giving to the rich I was on the wrong side of the equation. I had a friend in similar circumstances who watched it with me. I had to explain to him that when Sheen's character was offering a million plus dollars to buy a condo that he wasn't buying the entire building. My friend couldn't even comprehend how something could cost so much and how anyone could afford it.

    I agree on Hannah, although I did like her in Roxanne with Steve Martin. Good points about the several supporting characters.

    1. I knew the misquote--I shortened it for the title of this more or less for space. I was on the wrong side of the equation in the '80s (and still am, really). Wall Street bothered me more then than it does now. Back then, I couldn't understand why Gordon Gecko didn't end up with a traditional villain's ending. These days, I know better.

      For reference, that whole quote goes:

      "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms--greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge--has marked the upward surge of mankind, and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A."

  3. This is probably the most famous movie I yet haven't seen. This will change shortly, though.

    1. You're the third or fourth person (here and on Twitter) to tell me you haven't seen this yet. I'm surprised at the number of radars this has slipped under.

  4. Still don't care much for this movie until this day, however, I do believe that Douglas was great in this role and deserved that Oscar. And that's coming from somebody whose not much of a fan of his to begin with. Nice review SJ.

    1. The relevance of this film rises and falls with society. I understand not liking it. Oliver Stone, when he doesn't work for me, doesn't work really really hard.

  5. I completely forgot that Daryl Hannah was even in this film. All of my fond memories of this picture are related to either Sheen or Douglas. While I loved this film, Wall Street is a perfect example of how sequels can taint the original product. I have not had the desire to re-watch Wall Street since watching the awful sequel a few years ago.

    1. Which is precisely why I avoided the sequel a couple of years ago. I feel your pain.

  6. One of the things I like about the List is that it forces me to catch up on popular and well-known films that I didn't see for some reason or other when they first came out.

    Even though I was going to the movies A LOT in the late 1980s and early 1990s (I would go once or twice a week almost every week), I missed Wall Street because I'm just not that big a fan of movies about high finance.

    But it's on the List and I got it from the library and watched it last night. (And this trend of seeing popular movies I should have seen decades ago will continue with my next movie from the List because I DVRed Pretty Woman.)

    I was never bored with Wall Street. It's pretty good, really. But I wasn't nearly as interested by Wall Street as I was by The Big Short or The Wolf of Wall Street.

    And I guess it's important enough to be on the List because even people who have never seen it know that "Greed is Good." (Although I must admit that I wasn't the least bit impressed by Gordon's Gekko's almost-painfully transparent sophistry in that famous speech.)

    There are two things I'd like to mention that I loved about Wall Street that kept me interested and entertained even if I'm not such a big fan of the film overall.

    Number One: The cast. I like Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen well enough but Wall Street has a lot of people that I either like a lot or that I liked seeing just because they were really good in their small roles or just for a bit of the novelty value.

    In the first category: Daryl Hannah, Sean Young, Terrence Stamp, Martin Sheen, Hal Holbrook.

    In the second category: John McGinley, Josh Mostel.

    I'm not sure where to put Millie Perkins. I love her! But she had so little to do.

    Number Two: The music.

    Great Stewart Copeland soundtrack! And I also liked David Byrne creeping in here and there.

    1. There's a lot to like here. I probably like it a little less than I should. I used to work in an office where we had a great deal of freedom in how we did our jobs. There was a guy down the hall from me who watched this just about every day for six months.