Just how powerful is Wall Street big shot Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas)? And could a movie released more than two decades ago really have caused the worst worldwide financial crisis since the 1920s? As the stock market continues to plummet and the blame falls on those unscrupulous bankers and traders, one has to wonder if the root of the problem is really Wall Street. No, not that Wall Street; the movie Wall Street (1987).
It’s not so far-fetched; one could argue that the movie’s director, Oliver Stone, and star, Michael Douglas, really did sink the American economy. For one thing, Douglas’ character created a generation of Americans who believed that, in Gekko’s immortal words, “Greed is good!” Every day, people tell the film’s screenwriter that “The movie changed my life… I wanted to be like Gordon Gekko.” And Douglas still has a problem with drunk stock brokers telling him that he’s “the man.”
Although Stone was lampooning what he viewed as the
dangerous Wall Street culture of the 1980s, Gekko actually became a hero to
everyone who worked on “The Street.” Since then, things have only
gotten worse. As recently as 2007, Stone told Newsweek, “The problems that existed in the 1980s market grew and grew into a much larger phenomenon”
But the infamous Gekko was more than the inspiration for every
wannabe tycoon and Wall Street hotshot; he was the prophet of the
coming collapse, exalting in what many would view as the weakness of
the American economy. He told his young protégé, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen),
that “the richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s
wealth, $5 trillion. One third of that comes from hard work;
two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to
widows and idiot sons, and what I do, stock and real estate speculation.
It’s bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there
with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own.”
Today, these ideas are common knowledge. Everyone knows that CEOs’ salaries have skyrocketed and that jobs held by people like Bud Fox’s father,
Marv (Martin Sheen) — jobs that Gekko tried to destroy — have left the
country. Gekko was both the inspiration to a greedy culture and the
prognosticator of its demise.
Stone’s movie warned us about our future: Ken Lay (Enron), Bernard Ebbers (WorldCom) and Dick Fuld (Lehman
Brothers). People may exalt in the idea of hard work, but Gekko had no
illusions about what he was and what he did. When Bud asked him “how
much [money] is enough,” Gekko didn’t mince words: “It’s not a question of enough, pal.
It’s a zero-sum game; somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn’t
lost or made, it’s simply transferred from one perception to another.”
At a meeting with a failing paper company, Gekko hit the nail on the
head in his notorious greed speech, which serves as the movie’s indictment of
the world economy itself. Lost in his exaltation of the free
market was his assessment of what America had become: “a second-rate
power. Its trade deficit and its fiscal deficit are at nightmare
Gekko may have gotten the solutions wrong — he believed that greed would save “that other malfunctioning corporation
called the USA” — but he (OK, really writer Stanley Weiser and
director Oliver Stone) recognized the problems long before most of us.