Greed Is Back
I wasn’t a big fan of ‘Wall Street’ back in the day. Didn’t really buy into the famous quote about greed being good. The 1987 and 1989 market crashes put paid to something but perhaps that was merely the mergers and acquisitions. Since then the Liar’s Poker business has grown so big it has become too big to fail and we were all collectively forced to live through that painful discovery when the finance markets went to the wall (pun intended) during the Global Financial Crisis, which of course brought about yet another market crash.
The joy of having seen a few of these crashes is that you find yourself a little inured to the fact that the assholes that are close to the centre of the cortex actually get through these things quite nicely. It’s people in normal everyday jobs that find out that they don’t. The only real lesson to come out of these crashes is that fair – as always – has never got anything to do with this stuff.
Thus it is mildly interesting that Oliver Stone heads back to Wall Street with his alter-ego if you will, Gordon Gekko to survey just what exactly has brought about the GFC mess and if in fact there are the bones of a good drama.
What’s Good About It
I think Oliver Stone tries to be unflinchingly honest about his subject matters, whether it is the Vietnam War or Gridiron teams. Sometimes this honesty seems incredibly pious and at other times sanctimonious next to the bombast of his directing. The original ‘Wall Street’ was a bit of everything in Oliver Stone’s arsenal as he set about playing moral philosopher as well as director.
At least in this film there is a sense that maybe, just maybe the Mergers & Acquisition craziness and Gordon Gekko was hardly the problem brewing back in the 1980s. That perhaps all that excitement about M&A was merely the result of the underlying insanity that is finance itself. In that sense this film is one step closer to the meat of where it wants to go.
This film might also be Michael Douglas’ swansong. If it turns out to be the case, then it’s not bad that he returned to one of his signature roles.
What’s Bad About It
One of the things I never understand about any artist is their need to go on about the morality of certain things that have little to do with morality. In Oliver Stone’s case, he wants to make everything a moral issue when perhaps it’s simply not the case. For instance, the assassination of John F Kennedy being a conspiracy can readily be understood as a moral issue. But I can’t readily accept that finance and the peculiarity of that world is a moral issue to be thundered at with equal measure. This approach, to me at least, seems what makes both this film and its predecessor a very cheesy experience.
What’s really interesting about money is perhaps how amoral the business of money needs to be for it to have the outcomes we know today. Morality isn’t a really goo arbiter of why certain things get investment and others do not. Certainly that’s been my experience of the world of finance and share markets. The fact that this reification can have emotionally alienating effects is one thing, but making out that this is a moral issue seems really hamfisted.
But I guess Oliver Stone has to pitch his movies to the peanut gallery. I imagine a lot of people will resonate with the moral concerns in this film. For me, however, it’s a little tedious and pat. There’s a lot more to the GFC than morality, and there’s a lot less to greed than whether it is good or bad.
What’s Interesting About It
Sometimes it seems to me we will never fully understand the market crash of 2008 any more than we would understand that of 1929 or for that matter any of the other sell-offs in between. ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’ tries to set about building a narrative about what it means to be the victim of market manipulation, but let’s be frank, there was a lot more than mere market manipulation that went into the fateful days of September 2008. As Michael Lewis observed succinctly in Liar’s Poker there is only ever greed and fear in the market just as they are represented by bulls and bears.
Yet it is against this context that Oliver Stone is attempting to build a narrative about what exactly it means to be too big to fail. It’s one thing for the CFDs and CDOs to have been not up to scratch as the rating agencies rubber-stamped them; it’s another thing entirely when the bullshit sit at 100%. That means there is nobody who can win placing bets. At that moment it ceases to be a market because there are no possible winners. Except that is exactly what happened when all the banks suddenly glommed on to the possibility that all the credit default swaps they had on each other might not add up to even 1% of what was printed on the page. I guess that was the moment of pure terror.
Yet the film doesn’t really explore that terror. You’d think it was ripe for exploring because it is the very black hole at the centre of the financial galaxy as we know it, and once that fear is loose, it sets off the wildest panic run.
Or as one journalist inquired of Michael Douglas during the height of the GFC, “Gordon Gordon, does this mean greed is no longer good?”
The film does however touch upon the notion of time and existence and surprisingly, Gordon Gekko is fully a Heideggerian philosopher when it comes to time (as is Steve Jobs in his famous address to Stanford University, but what the hey). Rightfully, Gordon Gekko says that money might come and go but time is the only truly worthy commodity. Of course Gordon Gekko then goes on to struggle with the thesis when presented with his own thesis as a challenge, but come through he does as Heidegger would have approved.
It’s all the more poignant because Michael Douglas is fighting cancer as we speak. The prior awareness of our own death makes us capable of being existentialists. Gordon Gekko it turns out isn’t just a movie villain, he’s also an existentialist. Perhaps this is why he is able to abstract money and greed to the point of utility and ultimately to the point of saying greed is good in the first movie. Yet this character arc was never explicated in the first movie two decades ago. Perhaps this all reflects Oliver Stone’s own personal journey.
The bottom line is, whether we like him or not, Gordon Gekko is a redeem-able figure in this film precisely because we know he is an existentialist – and he’s probably a better character in fiction for it than the mustache-twirling do-badder of the first film.
Charlie Sheen reprises his role o Bud Fox ever so briefly. It’s an odd moment because it comes at the point of the story where Gordon is still down and on the outer, while Bud is done with his main part of his career. He is already in the long twilight of enlightenment, thanks to the success of the airline he saved. It’s oddly interesting because Charlie Sheen comes across as incredibly smug and corrupted, and any illusions we might have had about Bud Fox’s heroic status from the first film evaporates.
Maybe it’s all the cheesy films and TV sitcoms in the intervening years but Charlie Sheen just seems like a figure of corruption itself – even if the Bud Fox moment wasn’t written to be quite so sardonic. If there’s one thing I’m glad about, it’s that the sequel wasn’t built around Bud Fox.