When Greed Is Good

by Daniel Tovrov

19 May 2011


Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) doesn’t open with a shot of Wall Street. It opens with the Brooklyn Bridge—the gatehouse to New York’s financial district—filmed at sunrise from across the East River. The film then cuts, less than a second later, to a bucket of fish. Then to awakening Redhook docks and a train crossing a bridge. Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” begins to play. Finally, we approach downtown New York, with the camera rotating around lower Manhattan from the air as if searching for the best point of entry. Soon, we are taking the commute from the outer boroughs and suburbs to the titular street, driving along the FDR and riding the ferries, commuter trains, and subways along with the city’s hurried masses.

Bud Fox is going to work. Played by Charlie Sheen, Fox is a junior broker at Jackson & Steinham who spends his work day cold-calling rich people with stock tips. Dissatisfied with the pace of his career—which, when we first meet him, is costing him more money than it’s making him—Fox persistently networks with the hope of meeting those who can advance his station. His current project is financial markets-legend Gordon Gekko, whose office Fox calls daily. Gekko is an arbitrage expert and, thanks to his history of extremely profitable deals, a financial celebrity. The chance to work with Gekko could make any young broker’s career.

Fox finally impresses Gekko when an insider-tip on Blue Star Airlines—Fox’s father’s company—yields success. As both a reward and a test, Gekko gives Fox a one million dollar check, which Fox is instructed to invest. Fox looks at the check dumbfounded. He seems almost sick as he puts it into his pocket. Gekko laughs at his naïveté. Fox does not see money in the same way as Gekko, for whom the money is actually valueless. Like the chips in a poker tournament, the money is only there to keep score. This point is made again and again in Wall Street, and later in the film Gekko gives Fox another $800,000 to “play with.” The word play is important here. The money itself isn’t worth anything. Instead, it’s a means to gather more points—whether the points are in the form of more money, nicer possessions, sexier women, or a better apartment location.

From this point on, Fox is part of Gekko’s dirty operation. And like a young Mafioso doing whatever it takes to get made, Fox enthusiastically does all the snooping, price fixing, and lying asked of him. He ignores the inherent illegality of Gekko’s actions and is rewarded handsomely. That is, until Gekko begins a deal to buy Blue Star out from under the labor union bosses, one of whom is Carl Fox, Bud Fox’s dad. Instead of running the business after the deal as promised, Gekko decides that he can access the most points by destroying the company, selling the planes, and cashing in the pension fund.

Stone shows us that it’s not the superficial details, such as net-worth, experience, or job title, that really separate Fox and Gekko. Instead, it’s the way each one views economics. Fox sees Blue Star as an entity, something with specific characteristics and elements which combine to make a whole. These parts include everything from the airline’s employees to the role it plays in society. For Fox, a company is, quite simply, a thing. However, for Gekko the airline is only a symbol. It’s not comprised of unique characteristics, only shares and numbers. It is a placeholder for an amount, and that amount can rise or fall depending on how that placeholder is manipulated.

We are shown this division again about half-way through the film, when Gekko’s rival, Sir Lawrence Wildman, gate crashes a party at Gekko’s beach house. Gekko (with the help of Fox, who has been spying on Wildman) has just spoiled Wildman’s attempt to purchase Endicott Steel. Generally, Wildman and Gekko operate in the same way, and Wildman has been even more successful than Gekko, having been in the game for a longer time. But in this scene, Wildman tells Gekko that Endicott Steel is different. This time, it’s not just an investment—he doesn’t want the money, he “want[s] the company… for the long term.” He’s buying the company so that he can turn it around, not liquidate it. Wildman tries to appeal to Gekko’s conscience, saying “we’re talking about lives and jobs here. Three and four generations of steel workers,” but Gekko doesn’t even blink.

For whatever reason, Wildman has stopped playing the game and it has exposed him. Gekko’s already made money on the deal and stands to make more because of Wildman’s emotional attachment. Gekko treats Endicott Steel like any other game piece, and he wins. Endicott is Blue Star Airline and it’s Teldar Paper. It’s not an individual entity; it’s just a token.

Oliver Stone visually shows us the difference between Fox and Gekko through their respective workspaces. Jackson & Steinham is cramped and bursting with desks, computers, and people. Everything is heaped on top of the underlying structure, the hidden and bare frame of the architecture. This is the world of laws. Laws, like the extraneous pieces of furniture and the accumulating piles of papers, are added elements meant to control the fundamental system.

By contrast, Gekko’s office is open and roomy. It’s almost devoid of all added accessories—inside there are only a few couches, a couple of cronies, and some computers in the corner. There’s room to move and to freely operate. Here, the jurisdictional order doesn’t obstruct Gekko’s ability to pilot the market to make money.

Even when Fox gets his own office at Jackson & Steinham, he’s bound to the rules. The office places him in a middle ground between Gekko and his old self. The office is less crowded, but has glass walls and is surrounded by the constructed and cluttered world of the firm. Fox has a door, but it doesn’t lock. He can’t prevent that world from entering in. Gekko can.

Fox discovers Gekko’s plans for Blue Star by accident while visiting the law firm handling the deal. Although he was able to ignore the consequences of Gekko’s brand of economics before, Fox’s emotional connection to Blue Star forces him to notice Gekko’s degeneracy. Perhaps Fox wouldn’t have reacted negatively if his family and friends hadn’t been involved, or if Gekko hadn’t promised him the Blue Star CEO position, but regardless of his motives, Fox does something that Gekko never would: he lets emotions take precedent over his business decisions. This is the moment from which he can never return. It’s a moment of action, and Fox must make a choice: he either steps across the line and becomes Gordon Gekko, or he willfully steps back and becomes his own man.

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