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'Wall Street': What it still has to tell us

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Wallstreetdouglas_dl

Wallstreetdouglas_dlIt’s got to be one of the dozen most famous, iconic,carved-into-Hollywood-history catch phrases the movies have ever givenus, a line to quote right along with “I coulda been a contender,” “Youtalkin’ to me?” and “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” Yet backin 1987, just after the stock market had toppled, when Gordon Gekkoannounced to the world that “Greed…is good,” it had the super-intense,camera-flash zing of topicality: a cheerleader mantra for a go-godecade that would also serve as its epitaph. So when I went back,recently, to watch Oliver Stone’s Wall Street again, wonderingif the movie, with its addictive celebration of money fever built rightinto its hurtling information-age rhythms, would have anything to sayto us as we try to recover from our own age of go-go delusion, I was curious as to whether Gekko’s mythic words would now sound trapped in the bubblewrap of time.

Actually, his words are still timely as hell — though not in theway you expect. Standing before the shareholders of the Teldar papercorporation, trying to explain why he’d be the perfect guy to take overtheir company, Gekko, played by Michael Douglas as the world’s mosthandsome, gleamy-skinned cobra, makes a speech sensible enough to soundlike it was written by Barack Obama, with an assist from Donald Trumpin his tough-love Apprentice mode. Gekko starts off with astern warning about the growing national debt, and then — wait for it– he excoriates the Teldar vice presidents who are seated behind himfor taking so much wasteful executive pay. (He gives them the kind offace-to-face slapping down that the A.I.G. bonus crew haven’t yet hadto endure.) By the time he gets to “Greed is good,” it’s offered notmerely as the self-justification of a reptile in suspenders but asbadly needed medicine — the hunger for revenue, forprofit-as-lifeblood, that will get the company surging again. Youalmost wish he could make the speech on Wall Street today. Except forone thing: The speech is a big, fat lie.

The moment when Gekko finally tells the truth comes later in the movie — and it’s thisspeech, delivered to Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox as the two stand inGekko’s high-ceilinged, black-tower office lair, that now seems toreach across the decades to diagnose, with visionary flair, the poisonthat infected America: not just greed, but the toxic greed of wantingmoney so much that we could start to see it piling up even when itwasn’t there.

Bud, who has begun to glimpse the rot inside the devil he made adeal with, wonders, “So where does it all end, Gordon?” And then heasks: “How much is enough?”

“It’s not a question of enough, pal,” replies Gekko. And then helets the kid in on his real philosophy, the metaphysics of liquiditythat his empire is built on: “Money itself isn’t lost or made, it’ssimply…uh, transferred, from one perception to another. Likemagic.” With a glass of Scotch in hand, Gekko gestures toward thelooming green-and-black abstract monstrosity on his wall. “Thispainting here,” he says, “I bought it 10 years ago for sixty thousanddollars. I could sell it today for six hundred. The illusion has becomereal. And the more real it becomes, the more desperate they want it.”Then, with a rare confessional twinkle, he says: “What I do, stocks andreal estate speculation” — he smiles slightly and offers adisbelieving shake of the head — “It’s bull—!” Then he hits us withthe dirty secret, the real Greed Is Good: “I create nothing!”

And there you have it, 22 years ago, from the cinematic hand ofOliver Stone — a prophecy for our era, when leverage would bestretched to insane degrees because perception became reality, and suchpesky inconveniences as debt and loss were transferred from oneperception to another, all within the flow of creating nothing. As amovie, Wall Street still gives off an electrifying hum, evenwhen it’s dated (the primitive glowing-green computer screens, thehideous sponge-painting-by-Salvador Dali decor that Daryl Hannah’s vampdesigner inflicts on Bud’s new apartment). But it also revealssomething now which it couldn’t back then: that the Gordon Gekkos ofthe world weren’t just getting rich — they were creating an alternatereality that was going to crash down on all of us.

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