When Greed Is Good

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.

Gekko can and does transgress these limits…

Blue Star Airlines represents the limit which Fox will not transgress. He has done wrong, but he will only go so far. But Gekko can and does transgress these limits, limits which are both moral and official. Unlike Fox, there is nothing that Gekko won’t do to make more money. “It’s not a question of enough,” he tells Fox. Gekko can ignore the extrinsic laws of the United States regulatory system in favor of the inherent structure of the economic system itself. By ignoring the de jure laws, Gekko becomes free to use the system in every way possible. The only laws that Gekko cannot violate are the ones that govern market economics at the most basic level. He can abuse the extra-elements, artificially inflating stock prices or lying to shareholders for example, but he can’t simply add zeros to his bank statement. He has to create the zeros, which he does through his exploitation of the system.

As Roger Ebert said in his 1987 review of the film, “the laws are sort of like the referee in pro wrestling — part of the show.” In this way, nothing is untouchable; even the system itself is malleable. One of Gekko’s signature tricks is to spread misinformation about which stocks other brokers should buy, which allows him to temporarily sway a stock’s value in any direction he pleases. Gekko is the puppeteer and the market is his puppet. Unlike Fox, Gekko shows that he will do whatever it takes to accomplish his mission. His systemic misconduct is practically heroic. And like a true hero, Gekko lets no obstacles get in his way. He has the power to master the world around him.

In this way, Gekko is like Neo from The Matrix. At the end of The Matrix, Keanu Reeves’s Neo is able to see the computer fabricated world as it really is: merely a sequence of green-colored code which he can manipulate at will. In Wall Street, when Gekko looks at the market he sees the superstructure behind it. And he also sees where the system is able to bend.

This deconstructive force is on full display when Gekko speaks to the Teldar Paper shareholders. In the film’s most famous speech, from which we get the most famous line, “greed is good,” Gekko uses his mastery of another system — language — to manipulate the situation to his benefit. He delivers a slippery, equivocal speech in order to convince the shareholders to do something, although we don’t even know what Gekko’s plan is; we can only speculate. He eloquently talks about economics and research and accountability and America. There seems to be a lot there, but actually he says nothing. The speech barely makes sense when broken down. But, just like when he does business, by the time you finally ask “What is actually happening here?” his plan has already succeeded. He already has the shareholder approval he needs, and he’s already pocketed millions.

Gekko’s talent to make something out of nothing coincides with the idea that Gekko is a self-made man. He proudly tells Fox that he went to City College instead of Harvard, and that he climbed the corporate ladder because he was smart, hungry, and unsentimental. Rather heroically, he has literally made himself, and in doing so he built the persona of Gordon Gekko from scratch. And in his professional life, his rise to the top could only happen through the destruction of others.

Fox, conversely, won’t do everything it takes to become a player in Gekko’s game. Instead, he decides that Gekko must be stopped. Using all of the tricks that Gekko taught him, Bud Fox beats Gekko at his own game while martyring himself for his father, for the working class airline employees, and for the greater, ethical good.

Yet, even when Fox is acting the hero, he proves how much weaker he is than his former mentor. Fox can only pretend to be Gekko, and in the course of the film, he is never his own man. He’s always either doing what he’s told or playing dress-up. As soon as Fox starts making money, he begins to act in the way he thinks people with money are supposed to act. He moves to the Upper-East Side and buys a comically gaudy apartment. He uses his fancy new sushi maker with his new expensive girlfriend. It’s almost convincing, but then Stone immediately contrasts Fox’s new lifestyle with a scene of Gekko purchasing a two million dollar painting as coolly as he would order a steak at a restaurant. Even when Fox thinks he has something, he’s just an imitation of someone else.

Fox does finally rebel against his idol, but even then he’s not himself. The only way he knows how to hurt Gekko is by mimicking Gekko’s actions. To ruin the Blue Star deal, Fox essentially recreates the Endicott Steel deal, employing the exact tactics he saw Gekko use earlier. Fox has no tricks of his own, no original ideas. He can combat Gekko only when playing by Gekko’s rules. Gekko is still the master and Fox is his facsimile.

In Wall Street, it’s Bud Fox who takes the typical hero’s journey. He reaches a turning point and is made to discover himself though his redemption. At the end of the film, as Fox is being led out of his office in handcuffs, one of his senior colleagues imparts a last, summative piece of advice. The older trader says: “Man looks in the abyss, there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.” This is precisely what happens to Fox. When the truly amoral void at the center of Gekko appears before him, Fox is propelled into action, forced to repent and to defeat evil.

Fox’s plan does work and Gekko loses money, but Fox still fails. He didn’t get his moves quite right and the watchdog groups notice him. If, as Carl Fox tells his son in the final lines of the film, the goal of life is to create something, then Fox is a letdown. Gekko succeeds because he creates money. On his own, Fox can only lose it.

Wall Street challenges the viewer to see the world through Gekko’s eyes, which is to say, in terms of market capitalism. If Gekko will not (or cannot) discriminate between right and wrong, just and unjust, then neither should we, at least not in a traditional way. On the real Wall Street, good and evil exist, but they have been redefined. The economic system has only one purpose, which is to create wealth. In the market’s language, this is the only “good.” If evil exists, then it must be loss, which is the opposite of the good. For Gekko, this is the only morality which exists, and in Wall Street terms, he has been very good. When we view Wall Street through its own lens, it’s Gordon Gekko who emerges triumphant. Bud Fox, who refuses to devote himself wholly to market ideology, cannot be seen as virtuous. True, in the end Gekko’s illegal dealings are discovered by federal agents, but we never actually see Gekko get punished for his actions. Without the sequel, we don’t even know if Gekko goes to prison. And even if Gekko is reprimanded, Fox is as well. The normative versions of good and evil are irrelevant because both men face the same punishment.

Interestingly, Gekko is only caught after Fox tampers with the Blue Star deal, which is the only time in the film that we see Gekko lose money. In the market’s eyes, Gekko has committed an evil act. Would Gekko have been caught had the deal gone as planned? We can’t know, but it doesn’t seem probable. More likely, the SEC would remain unaware of Gekko’s illegal actions. From their computers, they would see the market functioning just as it’s supposed to. Fox had to ruin the deal before anyone could do anything about Gekko. Gordon Gekko had to really sin, which is to say, to lose money, for his actions to be noticed.

The movie ends with Fox alone, walking to judgment. Slowly and deliberately he climbs the courthouse steps. The camera pulls back. The steps are crowded; other people walk up and down them too. The music starts playing and the camera moves higher and wider. Soon Bud Fox is lost and the whole courthouse is revealed. Then Brooklyn, the East River, and then downtown Manhattan. Even at the end of the film, Bud Fox is trapped by the laws and the superfluous adornments that cover everything from the columns of the courthouse to the skyscrapers of the financial district. They cover everything except for Gordon Gekko, who is absent from the scene, still untouched by the court and the rules he does not follow. This is why Gordon Gekko is the hero of Wall Street. He may have to pay a price, but he is missing from the final message.

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