'Greed Is Good,' but the First 'Wall Street' Film Was Not

By Daniel Indiviglio

Releasing the sequel to a film more than two decades after the first is usually a recipe for a dud. But in the case of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the timing couldn't be much better. Right around the time that the general public feels wronged by and annoyed with Wall Street, Oliver Stone delivers the follow-up to his earlier Wall Street film, which depicted the culture of investment banking in the 1980s. As a former investment banker and avid film-lover, I'm particularly eager to see the new movie. I just sincerely hope that it's better than the first one, which suffered from a muddled message.

Without being inside Stone's brain, it's impossible to know precisely what he intended to convey in the first Wall Street movie. But presumably he wanted the audience to come away with the lesson that greed is not good at all. In fact, he wanted you to find it awful.

Throughout Wall Street, Stone appears to argue that it's undesirable for bankers and traders to make millions of dollars by pushing money around without actually creating anything tangible, like an airplane or car. Indeed, there are many reasons to be critical about investment banking and the culture that surrounds it. But in Wall Street, Stone mixes in actions that are simply illegal, instead of focusing on more controversial behaviors that lie in a gray area.

The only way to explain is with a brief plot synopsis. So here's your spoiler alert. But if you haven't seen the film in 23 years, then it's hard to imagine why you'd bother now.

Charlie Sheen plays Bud Fox, a slick, young stock broker who starts out as a nobody. Michael Douglas plays the infamous Gordon Gekko, an amoral uber-rich Wall Street superstar doesn't mind bending the rules to make more money. Fox wants to land Gekko as a client, and for a time will do whatever it takes to make that happen.

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Fox finally manages to impress Gekko one day by providing him an insider stock tip--which is illegal--about the small airline Bluestar for which his father works. Gekko knows that this information is nonpublic, but is apparently impressed with Fox's lack of ethics. So he gives him some money to manage, which Fox promptly loses by trying to invest honestly. So Fox turns back to more illegal activity, by spying, conspiring, etc. He and Gekko make lots of money.

Then Fox, again, makes the mistake of trying to go honest by buying and restructuring Bluestar with Gekko's help. But he soon finds that Gekko burned him and intends to make more money by by liquidating Bluestar's assets and firing its employees, including his father. Stunned, Fox hatches a plan to manipulate the stock prices and save the company. Fox appears to triumph over Gekko, until he is arrested the next morning for all his misdeeds, and later wears a wire when he confronts an angry Gekko, leading to his arrest as well.

Is the moral of the story that everyone who succeeds on Wall Street must be a criminal? Or is it that greed is only bad if you do illegal things? Those could easily be two take-aways from the film, but neither is probably what Stone wants to convey.

The Wall Street culture has plenty of undesirable characteristics, like frivolous spending, extramarital affairs, drug use, and treating people like numbers. But Stone doesn't focus on those legal-but-morally-questionable actions. Instead, the entire foundation of the film's plot rests on purely illegal activity.

Breaking the law is a universal evil, however, so the story fails to single out Wall Street. For example, I could just as easily write a movie about the auto industry being evil because some fictional auto executive secretly and knowingly cut costs and gets rich by allowing defective and dangerous cars to be purchased by consumers. The film's plot fails, because illegal activity is wrong everywhere--not just on Wall Street. Let's hope Stone does better with his sequel.

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