And End of an Era? Popular cinema, Gordon Gekko’s ‘Greed is Good!’ and the collapse of Wall Street

October 7, 2008 at 6:51 am

Twenty-one years on, Gordon Gekko, the stockbroker that preached ‘Greed is good!’ in this famous speech from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), is topical again.

This time around he pops up in The New York Times columnists Tim Arango and Julie Creswell’s article entitled Goodbye to All That: The Wall St. Lifestyle (October 5, 2008) in which they cover what they have wishfully termed an ‘end of an era’. The article abounds with stories of the lifestyle of excess and exclusivity, illustrated with pictures of pop culture financial abuse legends such as Michael Milken and Ivan O. Boesky, linked to the crash of 1987. Most of all, however, the authors are trying to make references to today’s situation. As the more recent names to name and pictures to come along for those leading the financial extravananza are still not really ‘short-listed’ as of yet, there is a photograph of a fleet of glossy black S-Class Mercedeses parked in front of the Lehman Brothers building on the day of their noisy bankruptcy a few weeks ago (there was an article in the Financial Times on 4 October 2008, on the art collection of Lehman Brothers’ Richard Flud and his wive, which is to fetch millions in a forthcoming sale at Sotheby’s). The main question that Arango and Creswell asked in their article is: in what ways the demise of Wall Street will trickle down into popular culture.

I am also interested in this question. The authors quote from an interview with Oliver Stone, the morality guru, who apparently has been clear about the true essence of Gordon Gekkos throughout. The illumination of the deeply criminal nature of the Wall Street ethos apparently has come to him long before he made the film, in the context of researching for his script for Brian de Palma’s Scarface in Miami in the early 1980s. ‘What shocked me,’ Stone reiterates, ‘was I met with all these guys who at a young age were making millions and they were acting like these guys in Miami […] There’s not much difference between Gordon Gekko and Tony Montana.’

While I write this, my TV is on, it is morning here in Chicago. CNN just showed Obama saying that the current financial crisis is due to the years of greed that has ruled America (this was almost literally repeated in another clip they played immediately thereafter, featuring McCain). It is an interesting moment to realise to what extent articulations that have first come about in the context of popular culture, in films such as Wall Street and The Bonfire of Vanities, now reemerge to define our understanding of the modern age.

These days I am staying on campus at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. The waitresses in the nearby Medici cafe wear T-Shirts that say ‘Obama eats here’, and the shops in the vicinity offer Obama merchandise; his house is not far. The TV brings in more and more of gloomy financial news, banks and markets continue collapsing on both sides of the Atlantic (it seems it is RBS’s turn today, 39% further down from the bottom it had hit yesterday). Yet at the same time it is all very relaxed: there is central air conditioning where I am staying. I am the only person staying on this floor with eleven guest rooms and yet the AC keeps working on full speed and it cannot be controlled or stopped. It is October, for God’s sake, it is not really necessary to use up so much energy to cool down an empty place, right? On the street polite and cheerful campaigners are asking you to ‘save the planet’ by separating your rubbish for recycling. It all gives me an interesting feel of a smooth descent into a post-financial apocalypse.

© Dina Iordanova
7 October 2008