Is greed still good? Does greed still, for want of a better word, work?
Twenty-three years later, Gordon Gekko is back, still played by Oscar-winner Michael Douglas and now running short on money and even shorter on what he realizes is an even more valuable commodity: time. We see him being released from prison, his personal effects including a gold money clip (empty) and his old cellular phone (the size of a shoebox). He walks out into the sunlight toward a sleek black limo only to see that it is there for someone else, the also-departing rap star.
Balzac famously said that behind every great fortune is a crime. That is literally true in Gekko’s case; he traded on inside information. But it is also true in a larger sense because the real reason for Gekko’s wealth is a fierce and unquenchable passion not for money but for winning. He has had a long time in prison to watch and think and plan his comeback. And so he leverages his notoriety into television and in-person appearances to promote his book.
The sequel is so close to the same framework as the original that at times it feels like a remake. Again there is a bright, ambitious and essentially honest young man with a lower-income parent exemplifying the current financial upheavals who gets drawn by Gekko’s gravitational pull. It’s Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who has the added complication of being engaged to Gekko’s estranged daughter (“An Education’s” Carey Mulligan, LeBeouf’s real-life love). And there is another big-time financier like the one played by Terence Stamp in the first film, Bretton James, played by Josh Brolin. Once again, there is an old guy who is the movie’s repository of wisdom and integrity (a fine Eli Wallach). Once again, the young man thinks he can hold on to his values and once again he will find Wall Street is more treacherous than he thought.
In his brilliant book on the financial meltdown, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis muses that his first expose of the wild world of Wall Street excess, Liar’s Poker was instead viewed “as a how-to manual.” The same is true for the first “Wall Street.” As the costume designer noted, the wardrobe from the first movie was selected for dramatic impact, not authenticity. But it was adopted by the real Wall Streeters, who were as thrilled with Gekko’s look as they were with his bravado, and his wealth.
While Douglas continues to be enough to make the entire movie worth watching, there is little chemistry with LeBoeuf or between LeBoeuf and Mulligan. The first film was an intriguing look at a hidden world. But today, with business news on the front pages and the editorial pages, on 24/7 news channels and thousands of websites, Wall Streeters are less often seen as dashing buccaneers than as the people most responsible for bringing the United States to the brink of economic destruction. The movie itself seems as though it cannot make up its mind what it wants from Gekko.
Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and non-explicit situations, a few strong words, discussion of suicide and drug overdose, family confrontations, unethical behavior, and vicious business battles.
Family discussion: Is greed good? What has and hasn’t changed in the way we see the real Wall Street since the first film?
If you like this, try: the original “Wall Street” and the documentary “Inside Job” and the books The Big Short and 13 Bankers. For some of my other thoughts about this movie, see these interviews from Portfolioist and Motley Fool.