Gordon Gekko returns...Wait! Did he ever really leave?
Some critics have argued that Gekko, while the perfect poster boy for 1980's greed, doesn't really fit the mold of 2008 greed. After all, Gekko (and his real-life inspiration, Ivan Boesky) used inside information to attack weak companies, which he subsequently bought out, chopped up, and sold piecemeal.
The current crop of Wall street baddies, on the other hand, bought up tons of cruddy mortgages, combined them into cruddy financial instruments, and repackaged these chopped-and-pressed agglomerations as AAA securities. Clearly, comparing Gordon Gekko to Dick Fuld is like comparing apples and...well, other apples. Maybe it's like Granny Smiths and Mackintoshes.
In the end, both of these subspecies of Homo Sapiens Amoralis displayed a common character trait: rather than make their money by actually producing something, they went with quick, unsustainable returns. Whether the mechanism was dismantling the work of other people or playing roulette with the housing bubble, both generations were guilty of locust thinking, seemingly incapable of looking past the next sale, the next chunk of money, the next bubble. Sooner or later, Gekko would have run out of ailing companies, while the bad mortgages on which Wall Street built its house of cards were sure to fail. Perhaps the goal was just to avoid being the last guy holding the hand grenade.
Money Never Sleeps is being scripted by Allan Loeb, whose breakthrough film, 21, centered around a group of mathematical geniuses who figured out how to consistently win at blackjack. This "smartest guy in the room" thinking, which Loeb skewered in his last morality tale, seems to lie at the heart of most movies about big business. For example, Tom Hanks' Sherman McCoy, the protagonist in The Bonfire of the Vanities, shares Gekko's sense of entitlement and his seeming notion that wealth should equate to privilege. Meanwhile, Patrick Bateman, Christian Bale's protagonist in American Psycho takes this perspective to the ultimate degree, using the trappings of success to obscure the sociopathic vacuum that exists inside his hand-tailored suits.
A few movies have envisioned an idealistic response to this amorality. Wall Street's Charlie Sheen, for example, ultimately rejects Gekko's greed. Similarly, Michael J. Fox's Brantley Foster in The Secret of My Success, saves his aunt's company from a corporate takeover, presumably ushering in a bright future of sustainable growth and responsible stewardship.
Of course, the ultimate version of the Wall Street paladin is Richard Gere's Edward Lewis, the male lead in Pretty Woman. Although he starts the film as a morally degenerate corporate shark, he eventually decides to preserve the company that he's taking over, lowering himself from his godlike position of corporate raider and consenting to actually produce something. Of course, as the film acknowledges with its damsel in distress and valiant Prince Charming conventions, this is a total and complete fairy tale. Still, it is interesting to imagine Dick Fuld getting involved with the plebian realities of putting people in homes or helping them build equity!
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. Thinking back to Pretty Woman, he can't help wondering how many hookers it would take to reintroduce morality to Wall Street.