When “Wall Street” was released 30 years ago, it seemed as if Oliver Stone’s Faustian cautionary tale, with its monumental title and its unforgettable villain, would be the last word on crime and corruption in America’s financial sector. What could be darker, after all, than a pitiless Master of the Universe, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, above), dragging his protégé, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), into a noxious swamp of industrial espionage? What could be grimmer than Bud’s wrongdoings giving his own father (Martin Sheen) a heart attack? It may have had the glamour of beach buggies, luxury apartments, and a big-haired Daryl Hannah, but the Wall Street of “Wall Street” was the vilest place on Earth.
That’s what we thought in 1987, anyway. Three decades on, the film comes across as a surprisingly positive portrayal of stockbroking. Yes, Gekko and Fox are up to no good, but Stone is careful to assure us that their insider trading is the exception that proves the rule. “Relax, Roger,” Bud wheedles an old college pal, as he talks him into a shady deal, “everybody’s doing it.” But everybody isn’t doing it. Most of the brokers on screen are sitting at their desks, working responsibly for their clients, and refusing to listen to any dubious stock tips. Bud is nothing but a remarkably bad apple. However much or little the viewer may know about Wall Street, you can tell that when Charlie Sheen is creeping around someone else’s office at night, disguised as a janitor, it’s not exactly standard practice. Even Gekko has his heroic side. As much as he believed “greed is good”, he is also a blue-collar striver who has battled his way into the gentleman’s club of “Harvard MBA assholes” against the odds.
Every time Hollywood has revisited the world of Wall Street over the last 30 years, that world has looked increasingly murky. In “Boiler Room” (2000), the anti-hero (Giovanni Ribisi) is running an illegal casino at the start of the film. But when he goes to work for a low-rent brokerage firm which specialises in near-worthless “penny stocks”, his colleagues are even sleazier than he is. The gentleman’s club disdained by Gekko is now a rowdy frat house where hard-partying brokers are encouraged to lie through their teeth and get rich quick. What’s more, they all love to watch “Wall Street” on video, a testament to Gekko’s influence. In “Boiler Room”, greed is definitely good, and “Harvard MBA assholes” are so unwelcome that any applicant with qualifications is shown the door. “We don’t hire brokers here,” snarls Ben Affleck’s character, “we train them.”
The notion that high finance is now in the grubby hands of hedonistic twentysomethings rather than Ivy League patricians is central to Martin Scorsese’s riotous “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013). So is the notion that it’s a barely regulated den of thieves and confidence tricksters. On his first day as a broker, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is taken to lunch by his disturbingly relaxed boss, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), offered a Martini and a spoonful of cocaine, and instructed to leave his ethics at home: “Name of the game: move the money from the client’s pocket into your pocket.” Times have changed since “Wall Street”. As iniquitous as Bud and Gekko were, they agreed that you had to learn all about a company before investing in it, whereas Hanna insists that such due diligence is nothing but “fairy dust”: “Number one rule of Wall Street, nobody knows if the stock is going to go up, down, sideways or in circles – least of all stockbrokers.”
Hollywood’s most recent banking dramas examine the crash of 2007 and 2008. And they both make Bud’s skulduggery in his janitor’s uniform seem sweetly harmless and old-fashioned. In “Margin Call” (2011) and “The Big Short” (2015), the entire investment industry is a criminal enterprise: a barrelful of bad apples. Banks across the country and the planet are using incomprehensible jargon to ensnare naive customers – and even the experienced professionals are struggling to understand the latest schemes. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. Or, more accurately, the children have taken over the school. In “The Big Short”, it’s the geeky youngsters who have to explain what “synthetic CDOs” and “bespoke tranche opportunities” are to the doughy, middle-aged Mark (Steve Carell). And in “Margin Call”, a regal CEO (Jeremy Irons) is so flummoxed that he instructs a junior data analyst to simplify the situation for him: “Please, speak as you might to a young child, or a golden retriever.”
From Foxes to Wolves to golden retrievers – what would Gordon Gekko have made of it all? Maybe he would have been delighted that the old order had crumbled, and that Wall Street was now swarming with wheeler-dealers who were as rapacious and materialistic as he was. Maybe he would have been gratified that so many of those wheeler-dealers were inspired by him. But I’m not so sure. He did, as I’ve said, have an honourable side, as well as an abiding love for the institutions he claimed to despise. Seeing the chaos wrought by his disciples, I think he might have questioned whether greed really was all that good, after all.