Freakonomics and Con-sumerism.
“The mother of all evil is speculation…” So says Gordon Gekko in WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS.
23 years after WALL STREET (1987), Gekko’s back! Oliver Stone‘s sequel to that pimping film is just as confusing and hedonistic, with its insider knowledge and corporate thuggery, but set very much in the present of the 2008 economic meltdown. (A newspaper headline featuring Obama indicates the times they are a-changing.) Released one year before Occupy Wall Street, I wonder how MONEY NEVER SLEEPS – a story set smack amongst the 1% – might have gone over, had it been released after the police pepper sprayings…
Michael Douglas returns as money shark Gordon Gekko, looking the worse for wear, exiting prison after doing 8 years for his amoral, sharky past, yet holding his dignity in a world market gone mercury-fast and Too-Big-To-Fail arrogant. (It should amaze all of us how everyone on the real life Wall Street is committing the same crimes Gekko committed – even as you read this! – yet only a few scapegoats do actual time.) Meanwhile, Gekko’s daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) is contemplating entering prison – yes, she’s thinking of getting married. Her boyfriend is young financial upstart Jake (Shia LeBeouf) who, like most young financial upstarts, worships Gekko as a legendary Wall Streeter; while Winnie’s view of her father is akin to the Occupy Wall Streeters’ – he’s a criminal, plain and simple.
Jake works for a financial firm run by Frank Langella, a more traditional trader from a more ethical time, who is run out of business by one of the new breed of unethical sharks, Bretton James (Josh Brolin, so well-coiffed and upscale we can smell the Yves Saint-Laurent wafting off him). Plot is about Jake’s moral choices as he decides whether to follow the Old Guard or swim with the new sharks.
Gekko has published a book, Is Greed Good?, twisting around his much-quoted 80’s axiom, to reflect the cultural Zeitgeist that is now vilifying the very same avaricious hedonism it lauded in the 80s. Co-writers Stanley Weiser and Stone attempt the TERMINATOR 2 schematic, where the “villain” from the first movie returns as the “good guy” – or at least “anti-hero” – of the sequel. Michael Douglas (looking very much like father Kirk) has become a “Hannibal Lecter” trope in MONEY; the bad guy who’s the good guy, the perp who has done his time and now advises on criminal practices from the inside track. Jake seeks his advice on how to destroy Bretton.
And we realize Brolin’s Bretton is the Gordon Gekko of this movie – as ruthless, filthy rich and greedy as bad boy Gekko used to be. When Jake asks Bretton, “What’s your number to walk away from the deal? Everyone has a number,” Bretton answers, “More.”
The Wall Street crash is almost implied with this movie, as we never do hear of the methods of the crash, or the investment bankers and credit raters who gave AAA ratings to trash stocks, then sold them and betted against them – that is not the focus of this drama. And it would completely remove us from the story in blood-red outrage were those predatory felons ever mentioned.
But one aspect of half-witted trading practices comes through loud and clear. Speculation – and speculation alone – drives stocks up or down, not actual financial activity. Activity is generated BY speculation. Some mothergrabbber standing on the floor of a stock exchange wonders out loud, “D’ya think Atlantic’s stock will go down because Kim Jong Il is dead?” – and Atlantic’s stock goes down. This is how you idiot humans let your society be run. On the whims of wonderers. Stock doesn’t go up or down because the stock itself is becoming rare or plentiful, not because of the stock’s intrinsic worth at any given time, not because it is actually “rising” or “falling” in any way! Any wonder the business-savvy amoral sharks who stand in those glass-paneled rooms overlooking the stock exchange ripped your money from your incognizant, grasping fingers. You idiots deserve it!
Gekko’s illegal insider trading involved inducing others to trade on information that he knew to be false. In other words, selling a lie. So who sold the lie that women look attractive with short hair? Carey Mulligan is a tremendous actress, but whoever is telling her she’s beautiful with that atrocious Bieber hairdo is just cultivating panty, nothing further need be speculated.
And the movie itself is a grand rope-a-dope con. We only realize it during a short scene between Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen – you read that right: Charlie “Tiger Blood” Sheen makes a cameo (playing Bud Fox playing Charlie Sheen), with two women on his arm, arrogant, coked-to-the-gills, and hilarious; Gekko and Fox trying to out-boast each other on fiscal war stories. We realize this movie would have been more entertaining had its focus been these two characters circling each other like mythic beasts, rather than Brolin and LeBeouf hazily discussing stock derivatives. They called it WALL STREET and roped us in, but it’s not about those two flamboyant characters we met back in the ’80s, it’s about two new characters whom we are on the verge of actively hating due to what their real life analogues did to our mortgages and retirement accounts.
And the greatest con of all: Just when we think Gekko has been relegated to second-stringer, passively watching from the sidelines as his short-haired daughter and Jake play out their romantic drama, we discover this old dog has some new tricks. Reminding us who really has the tiger blood…