Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
“You’re all pretty well fucked”
There are two reactions to this line in the theater. Most people laugh, like the people in the Fordham auditorium watching fallen wall street icon Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) give his book tour speech in early 2008. Some people realize that this isn’t a joke.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a con movie in the large. Pretty much any movie about stock trading — Trading Places, Boiler Room, the original Wall Street has to be at heart. But at it’s core the movie is built around one five-minute montage of clips from Gekko’s spiel. Oliver Stone’s movies tend to come with messages, and the other two hours of film are window dressing around this one scene.
Unfortunately, Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is sitting in that Fordham auditorium where he ones attended classes, and he never really seems to get it. The closest he comes is a realization that he’s not getting something, when he tells his fiancée — and Gekko’s estranged daughter — Winnie (an underused Carey Mulligan) that “people like us like bedtime stories”. What’s especially frustrating is that Jacob’s mentor Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella at his best for what little time he has) spends the first act trying to tell him the exact same thing. He even has to drill a variation of it into his mother (Susan Sarandon), who left her real job as a nurse to flip real estate.
The message, ultimately, is that the American economy — the financial sector specifically, but everything else that’s become tied to it, is a castle built on sand, and all of us are, as Gekko so eloquently put it, pretty well fucked. The famous housing bubble, and the other bubbles the script makes so big a deal about, are only the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is that nobody has any idea what the hell is going on anymore, and suddenly everyone knows it. Financial instruments like CDOs aren’t inherently evil, but they implicitly assume a certain amount of information to use safely, and we as a society haven’t had the spine to make certain that information is available.
Why haven’t we? Why are there no teeth in financial market regulations to compel disclosures to prospective clients, be they end investors or other investment banks? Because we fetishize the rich. America is the land where anyone can become rich — or so goes the line in the bedtime story we like to tell ourselves — and so we’re loathe to take any power from the rich because we’re convinced at next year we may be the rich ones.
And this movie actually doesn’t help much on this count. Being rich is glamorous and seductive in the extreme, and Stone shoots it lusciously and stylishly. Not all of his experiments pan out, but enough do that he comes out healthily in the cinematic black. Even a purportedly liberal crusading news-blogger like Winnie can close her eyes to the source of a palatial Manhattan condominium that can sell for four and a half million after the market crashes, and can distract herself from the consequences of such a lifestyle. It’s only when it crystalizes into a half-million dollar diamond engagement ring that she really becomes uncomfortable. And can we really blame her? After all, it’s incredibly nice to be young, white, attractive, and fabulously rich.
But so what else are we to do? Listen to Gekko’s book tour speech (not the rest of what he does) and Zabel’s advice: get out of the game; get a real job; get married; settle down; have a mess of kids; and spend a lot of time with the camera while they’re still young. Get out of the game while you still can, because in the long run it has no winners and a hell of a lot of losers.
Worth it: definitely.
Bechdel test: fail.