Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Frank Langella, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon
US theatrical: 24 Sep 2010 (General release)
When, exactly, did Gordon Gekko become a cinematic “hero”. Not in the traditional sense, mind you. This is a man, after all, who screws over companies like bimbos at a bachelor party and then holds no compunction about crying conspiracy when he’s eventually taken down by his own avarice. As a cautionary example, he’s almost neither. Yet he’s an ‘80s icon - again, another tenuous way of describing his out of the ordinary status - who argued that greed was “good” (for want of a better term) and used his slicked back Pat Reilly hairdo and expensive designers suits as a way of working in and around the various laws or personal and professional conduct. Even better (?), he almost got away with it.
Yet here we are, two decades later, turning him from movie myth to martyr, arguing for his redemption in two wholly implausible ways - financial and fatherhood - that seem antithetical to why people love the lug in the first place. Back when Reagan ruled his trickle down voodoo economics, he was a cutthroat archetype doing whatever it took to make a buck. He was a cruel corporate raider and he obviously was damn proud of it. In the unnecessary sequel to the Oliver Stone “classic”, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Gekko has since gone from ‘playa’ to prophet, predicting the doom and gloom scenarios that would come to undermine the world’s financial security during the latter part of the ‘00s.
Disheveled, slightly unkempt, and keen to find a way to both simultaneously endear himself to his distant adult daughter child Winnie and get vengeance on the man - Bretton James - and the company that caused his downfall, he schleps along selling his prison-inked predictions while voicing a new maxim on the value of materialism. Now, greed is no longer good, he states, just a shoulder shrug legal business model. It’s the way things have always been, except now the government has gotten in on the act, deregulating and redefining the laws so that banks and their betrothed multinationals can gamble and grind the wages of the working man into a fine addictive powder. In Wall Street, cocaine was king. In Money Never Sleeps, everybody is snorting the far more powerful substance - speculation.
This doesn’t change the fact that Gekko - even with Michael Douglas’ career defining performance both then and (not so much) now - is still unconscionably horrible. First time around, Bud Fox was victim of his seductive siren song. Now, it’s an established bull market bad boy named Jacob Moore. Already raking in the major scratch at his depressed, dying firm (we see a bonus check for a cool $1.4 million as the movie begins), Gekko views the kid as a chance to get back into Winnie’s life. You see, Jacob is the idealistic Internet entrepreneur’s boyfriend and our ex-con is convinced that a little interpersonal insider trading will get him and his angry child back together.
So what does Gekko do, actually? What makes him so hideous? Well, without spoiling too much of the plot (though Google and Wikipedia will do that for you, quite nicely), he gets Jacob to join up with James, offers him information to take down said titan, weasels sideways back into Winnie’s life (with lots of help from her star-gazing spouse to be) and then helps himself to some undeclared income left lying around. Taken one way - and perhaps the only way - Gekko destroys Winnie and Jacob’s life so he can bankroll is comeback, and he allows them both to do his dirty work in trying to expose James as far more corrupt than he ever was.
Sounds like the stuff of legend, right? In the hands of another director, one without Stone’s keen political savvy and narrative vision, Gekko would be nothing more than a formulaic villain, a moustache twirling menace in suspenders and a tailored Armani jacket. His backstabbing and disloyalty is matched only by his selfish need for personal satisfaction and he will literally step on and over anyone who gets in his way. Instead of going full bore into his unconscionably evil psyche, driving a dump truck up to and around his lamentable ethical landfill, Stone celebrates his cunning. It’s weird thematically. On the one hand, we’re supposed to loathe his methods. On the other, his ‘madness’ mimics everyone’s version of the American Dream - or what they perceive as such.
Perhaps Gekko’s lasting impact is tied to his ability to mass manufacture cash with undeniably fictional ease. He seems incapable of being broke. Even when he gets his measly $1.4K check for pressing license plates, he still lives in a luxury apartment with a stunning view (rented, of course). He walks in circles reserved for the socio-political elite and yet never seems to suffer from the stigma of being a convicted felon. Maybe it’s the public nature of his criminality. White collar is the new CEO black, apparently. We hear throughout the update that Gekko fought for five years before finally hitting the big house, and since his case was presumably well publicized, his battle for the buck could be seen as something akin to stoic.
Indeed, it could be that Gekko symbolizes the strongest tenets of pure capitalism - profit at any cost. It’s a brainwashed reality of life. From a young age, we are taught that money buys happiness (along with really excellent toys). We get piggy banks as presents while unfortunate relatives bribe us with disappointing savings bonds as tokens of future security. Dads want to teach us the value of a dollar and such arcane ideas as paper routes, summer jobs, and part-time employment mark our maturity with a patina of upcoming purpose. While all this would switch in the ‘80s, the sweat off one’s brow being replaced by a Masters in Business Administration, the focus remains on the fiduciary. Gekko just cuts out those meddling middlemen - conscience, compassion, and culpability.
It’s all the movies’ fault, of course. The arch dramatics of the medium can make any malevolence - even one that feasts on census takers with a side dish of favas and a bottle of vino - seem acceptable. But Gekko isn’t really the kind of noted nasty you love to embrace. Instead, he’s everything that’s bad in our current economic downturn. He’s the target of a Michael Moore documentary, a running gag for Bill Maher’s politically incorrect vivisection of the times. He’s the anti-anti-hero, and no amount of “told ya so” prophesying will make us forget that fact. So he predicts the post-millennial meltdown. BFD. He helped cause it in the first place, remember?
Oddly enough, toward the end of Money Never Sleeps, it is Jacob who actually finds this supposedly unflappable champion’s aching Achilles Heel. While it would be unfair to give everything away, let’s just say it has to do with the celluloid balm known as ‘biology’ and the prospect of passing along his CNBC unsound wisdom to a related generation. While fortunes are lost and the really bad are vanquished (unlike, say, the simply sinful) Gekko gets to keep his hair, his wrinkled wry smile, his aura of invincibility and that luxury car to drive him to DOC meetings with his parole officer. As a complete contradiction in ethical terms, Gordon Gekko is no idol. His continued relevance reeks of a mindset destined to repeat his mistakes - and where’s the value, entertainment or otherwise, in that?
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.