How much is enough? The kid keeps asking the millionaire raider and trader. How much money do you want? How much would you be satisfied with? The trader seems to be thinking hard, but the answer is, he just doesn't know. He's not even sure how to think about the question. He spends all day trying to make as much money as he possibly can, and he cheerfully bends and breaks the law to make even more millions, but somehow the concept of "enough" eludes him. Like all gamblers, he is perhaps not even really interested in money, but in the action. Money is just the way to keep score.
The millionaire is a predator, a corporate raider, a Wall Street shark. His name is Gordon Gekko, the name no doubt inspired by the lizard that feeds on insects and sheds its tail when trapped. Played by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street," he paces relentlessly behind the desk in his skyscraper office, lighting cigarettes, stabbing them out, checking stock prices on a bank of computers, barking buy and sell orders into a speaker phone. In his personal life he has everything he could possibly want - wife, family, estate, pool, limousine, priceless art objects - and they are all just additional entries on the scoreboard. He likes to win.
The kid is a broker for a second-tier Wall Street firm. He works the phones, soliciting new clients, offering second-hand advice, buying and selling and dreaming. "Just once I'd like to be on that side," he says, fiercely looking at the telephone a client has just used to stick him with a $7,000 loss. Gekko is his hero. He wants to sell him stock, get into his circle, be like he is. Every day for 39 days, he calls Gekko's office for an appointment. On the 40th day, Gekko's birthday, he appears with a box of Havana cigars from Davidoff's in London, and Gekko grants him an audience.
Maybe Gekko sees something he recognizes. The kid, named Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), comes from a working-class family. His father (Martin Sheen) is an aircraft mechanic and union leader. Gekko went to a cheap university himself. Desperate to impress Gekko, young Fox passes along some inside information he got from his father. Gekko makes some money on the deal and opens an account with Fox. He also asks him to obtain more insider information, and to spy on a competitor. Fox protests that he is being asked to do something illegal. Perhaps "protests" is too strong a word; he "observes."
Gekko knows his man. Fox is so hungry to make a killing, he will do anything. Gekko promises him perks - big perks - and they arrive on schedule. One of them is a tall, blond interior designer (Daryl Hannah), who decorates Fox's expensive new high-rise apartment. The movie's stylistic approach is rigorous: We are never allowed to luxuriate in the splendor of these new surroundings. The apartment is never quite seen, never relaxed in. When the girl comes to share Fox's bed, they are seen momentarily, in silhouette. Sex and possessions are secondary to trading, to the action. Ask any gambler.
Stone's "Wall Street" is a radical critique of the capitalist trading mentality, and it obviously comes at a time when the financial community is especially vulnerable. The movie argues that most small investors are dupes, and that the big market killings are made by men such as Gekko, who swoop in and snap whole companies out from under the noses of their stockholders. What the Gekkos do is immoral and illegal, but they use a little litany to excuse themselves: "Nobody gets hurt." "Everybody's doing it." "There's something in this deal for everybody." "Who knows except us?"
The movie has a traditional plot structure: The hungry kid is impressed by the successful older man, seduced by him, betrayed by him, and then tries to turn the tables. The actual details of the plot are not so important as the changes we see in the characters. Few men in recent movies have been colder and more ruthless than Gekko, or more convincing. Fox is, by comparison, a babe in the woods. I would have preferred a young actor who seemed more rapacious, such as James Spader, who has a supporting role in the movie. If the film has a flaw, it is that Sheen never seems quite relentless enough to move in Gekko's circle.
Stone's most impressive achievement in this film is to allow all the financial wheeling and dealing to seem complicated and convincing, and yet always have it make sense. The movie can be followed by anybody, because the details of stock manipulation are all filtered through transparent layers of greed. Most of the time we know what's going on. All of the time, we know why.
Although Gekko's law-breaking would of course be opposed by most people on Wall Street, his larger value system would be applauded. The trick is to make his kind of money without breaking the law. Financiers who can do that, such as Donald Trump, are mentioned as possible presidential candidates, and in his autobiography Trump states, quite simply, that money no longer interests him very much. He is more motivated by the challenge of a deal and by the desire to win. His frankness is refreshing, but the key to reading that statement is to see that it considers only money, on the one hand, and winning, on the other. No mention is made about creating goods and services, to manufacturing things, to investing in a physical plant, to contributing to the infrastructure.
What's intriguing about "Wall Street" - what may cause the most discussion in the weeks to come - is that the movie's real target isn't Wall Street criminals who break the law. Stone's target is the value system that places profits and wealth and the Deal above any other consideration. His film is an attack on an atmosphere of financial competitiveness so ferocious that ethics are simply irrelevant, and the laws are sort of like the referee in pro wrestling - part of the show.
Ten years ago in The New Yorker, Kurt Andersen suggested that maybe the 1980s never really ended. Or rather, that maybe the greedy, tawdry era imagined in Tom Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities and Oliver Stone's movie Wall Street had merely gone on hiatus during the early-'90s recession before roaring back on the momentum of a resurgent stock market. The '90s version of the '80s expired in the dot-com bust, but that High Reagan feeling is liable to come rushing back when lightly taxed hedgehog riches push the New York art and real estate markets into obscene overdrive, or whenever Steve Schwarzman throws himself a birthday party. Leveraged-buyout king Henry Kravis and all-around vulgarian Donald Trump, both '80s axioms, remain as ubiquitous now as then, and the new boss looks a lot like the old boss: Schwarzman, chairman and CEO of the Blackstone Group, has invitedcomparisons to Gordon Gekko, the suave and ruthless finance titan played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street.
In fact, Schwarzman made a clever inside joke of sorts earlier this month when Blackstone announced it was investing $600 million in a Chinese company called BlueStar, which just happens to share a name with the spunky mom-and-pop airline that Gekko attempts to liquidate in the movie. Enhancing the sense of déjà vu, Douglas and Wall Street producer Edward Pressman are in the early stages of a Gekko sequel called Money Never Sleeps (albeit without the participation of Stone or Charlie Sheen, the first film's nominal protagonist), and Fox has just released a two-disc "20th anniversary edition" of Wall Street on DVD.
Then as now, the movie had good timing. Sporting power suspenders, pomaded hair, and no-mercy machismo, Gordon Gekko epitomized Wolfe's "Masters of the Universe"—only Gekko made a more attractive villain for being a self-made man, lacking the WASP pedigree and Ivy League credentials of Bonfire's Sherman McCoy. Released in December 1987, two months after the Black Monday stock market crash and just one week before Ivan Boesky was sentenced to three years in prison for securities fraud, Wall Street appeared like the indignant coda to an era that had suddenly self-destructed. (Parts of Gekko's famous "Greed is good" speech are freely paraphrased from comments Boesky made in 1985.) "The eighties are over," Newsweek announced in its first issue of 1988, adding, "Maybe the best pop-culture indicator of the post-'80s spirit is the respectful reception given to Oliver Stone's dreadfully ham-handed Wall Street." Audiences are "predisposed to despise stockbrokers," Newsweek explained, and would therefore welcome any movie, no matter how awful, that put them in their place.
Viewed with two decades' hindsight, Wall Street remains a slick diversion as a time-capsule artifact and whenever the very quotable Gekko is hogging the screen. In other respects, though, Stone's morality play stands up about as well as many a notion held dear by some in the '80s—that furniture design could emulate Julian Schnabel's broken-crockery aesthetic, say, or that Daryl Hannah could act. At the film's outset, our protagonist, the not-quite-despicable stockbroker Bud Fox (Sheen), is ambitious and venal but still bumming cash off his salt-of-the-earth dad (Martin Sheen), a union rep at Bluestar Airlines. The youngster's luck turns when he wins an audience with Gekko and nervously blurts out an inside tip on Bluestar, which earns Gekko a tidy profit and a place for Bud beside his throne. (The perks of proximity include broken-crockery furniture and Daryl Hannah.)
The central moral conflict of Wall Street is transposed from Stone's previous film, Platoon (1986), which also cast Sheen as the eager-to-please newcomer torn Skywalker-style between a Good Father and a Bad Father. The young actor is serviceable in the mode of awkward upstart who's out of his depth, but he's tense and unconvincing as the avenging son once Gekko decides to pulverize Dad's little airline that could. It's not Sheen's fault, though, that Bud has to wander onto his balcony late at night and ask the stars, "Who am I?" The script's hackneyed language only comes to life when it feels the thrill of the kill, when the characters are salivating about bagging the elephant or sheep getting slaughtered or when Gekko says of an irritant that he wants "every orifice in his fucking body bleeding red."
He's not exactly being hyperbolic, either. Gekko's business, of course, is to eviscerate entire organizations and profit from the steaming entrails, even though he insists, "I am not a destroyer of companies—I am a liberator of them!" (Despite the reptilian name, Douglas cannily plays the villain as a vaguely animatronic shark—as a well-lubricated death machine.) Carnivorous bravado is integral to the era's most memorable portraits of greed, whether in Bonfire (there's a telling moment when someone mishears the title of a book called Merger Mania as Murder Mania) or in Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho (1991), in which serial killer Patrick Bateman tells an acquaintance that he works in Murders & Executions. The Drano-strength wit of Ellis' blackhearted satire might have been overshadowed by all those lovingly depicted M&Es, but American Psycho is a more incisive and efficient (not to mention funnier) summation of the era than Wall Street: It distills both the slash-and-burn frenzy required of Bateman/Gekko's professional milieu and the purgative effects that extreme wealth and power can have on the soul, and encapsulates them within one sharply dressed, vigorously exercised, homicidal maniac.
Given the excesses of the late '00s, we may be overdue for a maniac to call our own. On the Wall Street DVD, Stone reckons that his film made Hollywood more amenable to making movies about business, but if there was little evidence for that claim in 1987 (13 years passed before the release of Wall Street's closest descendant, Boiler Room), there's less so now—with the obvious exception of Money Never Sleeps, which nonetheless reanimates another era's icon rather than inventing one from scratch.
Money Never Sleeps promises a newly globalized milieu (Pressman has stated that the film's locations include London, the United Arab Emirates, and "an Asian country"), but it may also provide an opportunity for Douglas et al. to provide a corrective to one of the unexpected side effects of Wall Street: the cult of personality attached to Gordon Gekko. Douglas says he's still stunned by the number of people who tell him that his Oscar-winning role was the reason they went to work on Wall Street. "It's so depressing and sad," Douglas says. Perhaps the actor's bemused remorse will result in a Gekko II that's a filthier piece of work, less glamorous, more pathetic. After all, nobody ever went into finance because of Patrick Bateman (or at least, no one would ever admit it), but there's no shame in naming Gekko as one's Bad Father. "I recall looking at that film and saying, 'That's what I want to be,' " recounts the late hedge-fund manager Seth Tobias in one of the Wall Street DVD featurettes. Somehow, an oleaginous villain meant to embody the worst excesses of his era became a folk hero and highly persuasive career counselor. Wall Street was intended as a cautionary tale, but oddly enough, it endures as a possibly timeless model for success.