Original release: December 11th, for sale 1987
Running time: 126 minutes
Writer and director: Oliver Stone
Composer: Stewart Copeland
Cast: Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, Daryl Hannah, Martin Sheen, Terence Stamp, John C. McGinley, Hal Holbrook
Greed is good: 01:11:44 to 01:15:46
“Greed is the inventor of injustice as well as the current enforcer.” ~ Julian Casablancas
Is greed good? That need for excess, that hunger for more and that desire to line our pockets; who would turn ‘success’ down and walk away? We always want better and better is always associated with more – and wanting more, we’re told, is only human nature. Oliver Stone’s cautionary treatise on the dangers of greed in the volatile world of stock trading is perhaps one of the best known screen examples we have.
Set in 1985, as the film opens, the swooping camera shots move in on New York City at sunrise, closing in on landmarks such as the World Trade Center towers, the Stock Exchange and the Brooklyn Bridge. In the morning light it looks peaceful, but then we move in closer on the most famous third of a mile in the world – Wall Street. It’s the morning rush hour and the folks down on the ground are swarming through the streets like mice in a maze. Squeezing through doors, crammed in carriages, pilling into elevators, they’re all in pursuit of one thing – more money.
Among them is Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a junior stockbroker at Jackson Steinem & Co. He’s desperate to make his mark on the world and right now he’s swimming with the big fish, but he’s got his eye on a shark, corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Like all sharks, Gekko doesn’t bother with the chatter downstream. His secretary screens his calls and schedules his day with military-like precision. This makes it difficult for Bud to pitch him stock options.
Bud’s dad, Carl (Martin Sheen), doesn’t understand his son’s fascination with money and why he needs to make so much of it so fast. Carl’s a blue-collar maintenance foreman at Bluestar Airlines and president of their machinists’ union. He believes success is achieved through the ability to provide something of value, rather than speculating on the goods and services of others. He couldn’t be more different from Gekko even if he tried.
When Bud manages to get a few minutes with Gekko, he fails to impress him with his stock options. In a desperate attempt to secure him as a client, he passes on some inside information he gained from Carl about Bluestar, and Gekko takes the bait, but the stock tanks and he loses money. However, Gekko takes the youngster under his wing with the hope he’ll do anything by any means necessary to make some big bucks. Gekko’s influence on Bud will lead him to make amoral choices, resulting in the loss of his dad’s respect for him and his livelihood, while his own wealth and status advances. Although Bud is apprehensive at first about using inside information to do business with Gekko, the latter makes it clear; unless you’re on the inside, you’re on the outside.
This new moral descent begins with his first real assignment for Gekko; to spy on British corporate raider Sir Lawrence Wildman (Terence Stamp) who’s planning on making a bid for Anacott Steel. Through Bud’s spying and manipulation of the market, Gekko makes a huge profit from buying the stock first before the price skyrockets, forcing Wildman to buy shares off him to complete his takeover. Bud quickly starts to reap the rewards of his labour. He’s given a hefty commission by his firm, a corner office with a view, he moves into a penthouse apartment and bags himself a new girlfriend.
He doesn’t know it yet, but his trades are already sending up red flags with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Bud’s next move involves his dad’s company, Bluestar. He pitches to Gekko that he should buy it and expand it using savings from union concessions. After using a reluctant Carl to gain union support for the deal, Bud then realises Gekko intends to dissolve Bluestar, sell off its assets and profit heavily from their over-funded pension plan. The move would leave Bluestar’s employees, including Carl, without a job, but Gekko with a cool $70 million.
Before that happens though, Wall Street’s pivotal scene comes when Gekko takes to the stage at the Annual Stockholders Meeting of Teldar Paper, a company he wants to buy, forcing out their management. He delivers a monologue where he not only defends greed, but justifies it in his own terms. Around 400 stockholders are present; many of them are middle aged and older. Mr. Cromwell (Richard Dysart), the company’s chairman, stands at the podium and introduces Gekko with some attacking remarks.
…Your company, ladies and gentlemen, is under siege from Gordon Gekko. Teldar Paper is now leveraged to hilt, like some piss poor South American country. I strongly recommend you to see through Mr. Gekko’s shameless intention to strip this company and severely penalise the stockholders. I strongly recommend you to reject his tender by voting for management’s restructuring of the stock. Thank you.
As the stockholders applaud Cromwell’s speech, Gekko rises from his seat, looks at Bud sitting nearby, and with a microphone in his hand, he makes his way forward.
Well, I, uh, I appreciate the opportunity you’re giving me, Mr. Cromwell, as the single largest shareholder in Teldar Paper, to speak. Well, ladies and gentlemen, we’re not here to indulge in fantasy, but in political and economic reality.
Gekko then proceeds to walk down the centre aisle as he enters into his monologue.
America, America has become a second-rate power. Its trade deficit and its fiscal deficit are at nightmare proportions. Now, in the days of the free market, when our country was a top industrial power, there was accountability to the stockholder. The Carnegies, the Mellons, the men that built this great industrial empire, made sure of it because it was their money at stake.
[Raising his voice] Today, management has no stake in the company! All together, these men sitting up here own less than three percent of the company. And where does Mr. Cromwell put his million-dollar salary? Not in Teldar stock. He owns less than one percent. You own the company. That’s right – you, the stockholder. And you are all being royally screwed over by these, these bureaucrats, with their, their steak lunches, their hunting and fishing trips, their, their corporate jets and golden parachutes…
This is an outrage! You’re out of line, Gekko!
Teldar Paper, Mr. Cromwell, Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents, each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost $110 million dollars last year, and I’ll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents.
The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the un-fittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. In the last seven deals that I’ve been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pre-tax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you. I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them!
The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good.
Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed — you mark my words — will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much.
The entire room erupts in applause and the stockholders, it seems, agree with every word Gekko has said.
It’s fascinating to see how he’s painted himself as some sort of Robin Hood, who’s stealing from the rich but keeps forgetting to give to the poor. He’s claiming to be the great liberator, pointing to the bloated and wasteful ways of post-War corporate America and Teldar is just one of his many stops on the way to saving good honest stockholders from being taken for a ride. Yet Gekko’s motives aren’t as altruistic as he’d like us to believe.
Why does he want to destroy these companies? Because he can, it’s there for the taking, and like he says, greed captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit and it exists in all areas of our lives and not just in the corporate world. We want more love, sex, and in the end, we always want more time. Greed, it seems, is not only good, it’s necessary for our survival. Along with “lunch is for wimps”, it became a common motto for the 80’s, a decade which saw the rise of the Yuppie (young urban professional). It combined the ‘me-generation’ philosophy of the carter era with Reaganomics, becoming the image of the era’s Zeitgeist.
It was also inspired by a real life case.
Though Wall Street paralleled the excessiveness of the 80’s and gave rise to a new type of anti-hero in cinema, it also captured the way greed can be magnified in places like trading offices and corporate boardrooms where money is nothing but a point of view and figures that can be moved around to anyone’s advantage in a game of chance.
Though Bud later realises greed isn’t as good as Gekko seems to think, the damage has already been done. There’s still time to save Bluestar, but with Carl suffering a heart attack after a heated argument and the SEC closing in on him, the best he can do is make sure he has a clear conscience as he faces charges of insider trading.
Despite associating corporate greed with the 80’s, its stench is far reaching. From as early as the 1920’s we’ve seen people keen to manipulate the market, gaining an unfair advantage with inside information. Albert H. Wiggin was one of the men who made a hefty profit ($4 million) during the 1929 Wall Street Crash when he shorted 40,000 shares of his own company.
Others, like home-maker guru Martha Stewart, R. Foster Winans, Raj Rajaratnam and Enron’s CEO Jeff Skilling, fell victim to insider trading in recent decades, but what I always found most astonishing was what went on in the days leading up to the September 11th attacks, involving an unusually high number of put options (where you bet the price of shares will go
down and profit from it).
The stock prices for Morgan Stanley, United and American Airlines dropped in response to the attacks but the options multiplied a hundredfold in value, making millions of dollars in profit. It raises serious suspicions that the investors…had advance knowledge of the attack and did nothing but attempt to gain profits from it.
Greed is alive and well in the 21st century, but unlike what Gekko would have us believe, it’s not good and it’s certainly not necessary for us to survive.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .