'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps' Presents the Next Generation of Financial Sharks

Wall Street Shia LaBeouf
Wall Street Shia LaBeouf

Between 1974 and 2009, Oliver Stone directed seventeen films on subjects ranging from the Vietnam war to ancient Macedon, Jim Morrison to George W. Bush. But in all that time -- and all those films -- he never made a sequel. It seems likely that much of Stone's reluctance to step twice in the same river has to do with his themes: his films often capture and crystallize an historical moment, like the loss of national innocence in the Vietnam-based Platoon or the explosion of greed in 1987's Wall Street. Returning to the same well could easily veer into self-parody.

Then again, sometimes history repeats itself and -- for once -- Stone has followed suit. The director's eighteenth film and his first-ever sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, opens today across the country. Bringing back Gordon Gekko, the seductive villain from the first Wall Street, Stone's latest morality tale once again shows the danger -- and irresistible attraction -- of outrageous amounts of money.

Scandal Nostalgia

But the world has changed in the last 23 years. By today's standards, the schemes in Stone's original movie were simple, even brutish: Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko, a slick corporate raider, convinces the naive Charlie Sheen to give him insider information. Gekko then uses the information to make scads of money. In the end, everything works out: Sheen's fresh-faced young broker turns on his mentor, Gekko goes to prison, and the moral balance of the universe is restored.

Today, the financial system is infinitely more complex, and white hats and black hats seem to have faded to a mottled gray, as some of Wall Street's biggest malefactors have convincingly claimed that they didn't know what they were doing to the economy. The simple crimes of Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken have been transformed into the shadowy, heady world of Fabrice Tourre, Goldman Sachs (GS) and John Paulson. Discussing his decision to make a sequel, Stone noted that "After 2008, [Wall Street] began to have a karma, a sense of crime and punishment . . . 2008 is still a warning signal."

The Next Generation of Wall Street Shark

Money Never Sleeps
is firmly based in this world, in which the wise, confident Masters of the Universe have been replaced by slick, young math prodigies feverishly creating and selling bizarre securities with little interest in the long-term implications of their actions. Charlie Sheen's fresh-faced, callow stockbroker has been replaced by Shia LaBeouf's (pictured) confused Jacob Moore. A hungry young trader, Moore is engaged to Gekko's daughter and finds himself drawn to the ex-convict and pulled into complex, unethical money-making schemes.

Of course, Douglas is back, exuding the jolly, menacing charisma that made Gekko so attractive in 1987. But this time, he has been softened by the years and by a yearning to reestablish contact with his daughter. The new, improved villain -- the T-2000 to Douglas' Terminator -- is Bretton James, a shady hedge fund manager played by Josh Brolin. On many levels, the difference between the two characters gives a hint at how far Wall Street has come -- or fallen -- since the 1980's. Back then, the great wheeler and dealers were corporate raiders like Gekko, who took over companies and either dismantled or reorganized them for considerable profit. Today, the biggest paychecks go to hedge funders like James -- or John Paulson -- who never get any closer to a company than its stock or its derivatives.

Stone tends to be a moralist, which means that his movies typically end with the liberal application of just desserts. In real life, however, it doesn't really work that way. After all, at the end of the 2008 financial bloodbath, the major villains, including John Thain, Richard Fuld, Jimmy Cayne, and even John Paulson, were all on the outside of prison, often nursing huge golden parachutes. In fact, of all the names associated with the various Wall Street debacles, Fabrice Tourre is one of the few who seems to be truly paying the piper as he prepares for a trial that could land him behind bars. With John Thain and Dick Fuld preparing for their second acts, the sad truth is that 23 years later, Wall Street seems to have become a place where wealth can truly place a villain beyond the reach of the law.