Greed, by Carol Highsmith (1946)

Crumbling Wall

ROBERT HENDERSON compares and contrasts two revealing films about high finance

Wall Street (!987)

Director Oliver Stone

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Director Martin Scorsese

Twenty six years lie between Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street (TWOWS) hitting cinema screens. Wall Street is fiction, although there are reputedly people in real life from whom the film’s main characters were developed, for example Sir Larry Wildman (Terence Stamp) is supposedly drawn from  on the British financier Sir James Goldsmith. The Wolf of Wall Street (TWOWS) is based upon the autobiography of a Wall Street trader, Jordan Belfort. How much of that is fact is debatable, although the general tone of the man’s life given in the book is plausible.

Both films begin their action in the 1980s. Both deal with the shady world of finance. Both are vehicles for the unbridled egotism of their main characters. There the similarities end. Wall Street is about corporate raiders, men who seek to take over companies and then asset-trip them,  sell them on quickly for a profit or run them as a business for a while, reduce costs (especially by cutting jobs ) and then sell them. The main criminality involved in the film is insider dealing.

TWOWS is simply about making a fast buck and the faster the better, with not even a show of doing anything beyond making money. These people use any method from the huckster selling of penny shares to insider dealing, and celebrate each success in the spirit of the man successfully running a hunt-the-lady scam in the street. They are the masters of the universe and those who lose out are suckers. There is zero concern for or even awareness of the greater general good of society.

The protagonists in Wall Street are a young stock trader, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), and a corporate raider, Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas). Bud idolises Gecko and manages to work his way into Gecko’s circle by passing on privileged information to him, information which he has received from his father Carl (Martin Sheen), who is a union leader at Bluestar Airlines.

Once inside Gecko’s circle, Bud sheds his morals and is content to help Gecko engage in insider trading until he discovers he is being used as a catspaw by Gecko, who is trying to take over Bluestar to dissolve the company in order to access cash in the company’s overfunded pension plan. Bud rediscovers his conscience after a fashion, and outmanoeuvres Gecko by making an agreement with Wildman – whom  previously he had helped Gecko to defraud through insider trading when Wildman wanted to take over a steel company –  to buy a majority shareholding in  the airline on the cheap  and run it as a going concern. In doing this, his  motivation is more revenge for being betrayed than suddenly being disgusted with what he had become under Gecko’s influence.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is a trader who loses his job with a Wall Street broker when the firm crashes, moves into boiler-room trading in penny shares (which are barely regulated and allow for huge commissions to be charged to naïve investors who are often buying shares which are next to worthless). He makes a small fortune doing this.

Belfort then decides to strike out on his own account in rather more up-market  surroundings. With a friend, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill),  he sets  up  a suitably Ivy League-sounding firm of brokers Stratton Oakmont. They operate on the principle of “pump and dump”  (artificially inflating a company’s share price by tactics such as spreading false rumours or simply buying heavily and then selling the shares rapidly). Stratton Oakmont is given lift off by an article in Forbes magazine which calls Jordan “a twisted Robin Hood” and the “Wolf of Wall Street”, which appellations prove a first rate recruiting sergeant for Stratton Oakmont, with hundreds of young stock traders flocking to make money with him. From that point on he becomes seriously rich.

What the films do admirably is show the difference between the cinematic portrayal of  the American financial world  in films released  in 1987 and 2013. To refresh my memory I watched Wall Street again before writing this review.

The striking thing about that film is how restrained it is compared with TWOWS. Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gecko is far more disciplined than DiCaprio’s Belfort. He has some semblance of intellectual and arguably even moral justification for what he does, most notably in a scene where he is addressing a shareholders’ meeting of a company he is trying to take over. This is where Gecko utters the most famous words in the film “Greed is good”. The words have serious context. Gecko is peddling  the laissez-faire line that competition is an unalloyed good, because it is the agency which creates natural selection amongst companies and it is only that which keeps an economy healthy. He also puts his finger on a real cancer in big business: the development of the bureaucratic company where the company is run for the benefit of the senior management rather than the shareholders. Gecko rails against  the huge number of senior managers on high salaries in the company he wishes to buy, a business which has done little for its shareholders.  Whether you agree with the raw natural selection argument in business  – and I do not – at the very least it shows that the likes of Gecko feel the need to  justify what they do, to provide an ethical cloak for their misbehaviour.

There is also a serious difference in the general behaviour of  Gecko and Belfort. Gecko, for all his faults, is not a libertine. For him money is both an instrument and an end in itself. It gives him power and status, a medal of success in his eyes and the eyes of the world he inhabits. There is purpose in Gecko.  He enjoys the material trappings of wealth but is not overwhelmed by them. In Belfort there is merely an ultimately empty grasping of licence with drugs, whores and absurd status symbols, such as an outlandishly large yacht, which his ego drives him to wreck by ordering the captain to sail in weather which the captain tells him is unsafe. He acquires a trophy girlfriend, and dumps his wife. There is no solid foundation to any part of his life.

The other big general difference between the films is ethical.  Wall Street has a moral voice which acts as a foil to Gecko’s amorality. Bud Fox’s father Carl puts the case against capitalism red in tooth and claw. After Bud’s discovery of Gecko’s attempt to buy Bluestar, Carl’s dissenting ideological  voice is added to by Bud. In TWOWS there is no moral voice or pretence by Belfort (or any other character) that what they are doing has any social function or ethical content. Instead the public are simply viewed as a bovine herd to be milked as ruthlessly as possible. The fact that what is being done – whether it be selling penny stocks in a boiler room or using insider information in more sophisticated company –  is no better than a confidence trick does not cause Belfort and his fellow participants the slightest discomfort, only unalloyed joy. They are getting rich at the expense of suckers. It’s all a game whose only end is to make the individual rich, and to be rich is a validation of their existence.

Gecko and Belfort end up in prison, so in that respect at least they honour the old American film tradition of never showing the criminal getting away with it – although  in the case of Belfort he ends up in a place which is not so much a prison as a country club.

Both films are strong in all the technical ways – script, plot, characterisation and acting – that are used to judge films. Michael Douglas’ is a more studied performance than that of  DiCaprio who brings an amazing energy to the role. But arresting as Douglas’ performance is, the film has ample space to fill out other characters. Indeed, in terms of screen time it is Bud who wins out.

DiCaprio’s Belfort has strong claims to be the best performance in an already long career, but it utterly dominates the film and consequently the other characters have little room to develop. They either remain one rather dimensional or, like Matthew McConaughey, appear only in cameos.

The quality of the films as films is reason enough to watch them, but their primary value, as a pair, is their charting, unwittingly, of the decline of moral sense between the 1980s and now.

ROBERT HENDERSON is the QR‘s film critic


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