“THE MOTHER OF ALL EVIL IS SPECULATION!”
“Steroid Banking” in the time of ruin. Too much morality, too little Gekko – the “Ninja” generation, weapons of mass destruction and Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”
By Rudiger Suchsland
[This film review published 5/15/2010 in the German-English cyber journal Telepolis is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.heise.de/tp/r4/artikel/32/32634/1.html
. “What is the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Dialog from “Wall Street 2 – Money Never Sleeps.”]
This film is a PR-wonder: the sequel to “Wall Street” from 20 years ago is a highly topical film on the financial crisis. Stone’s cinema was often a seismograph of his age…
There is a very beautiful moment in “Wall Street 2 – Money Never Sleeps.” When Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, is outfitted by a high-class London Haberdasher, a photo on the wall can be seen in the background. It is a black-and-white picture 50 years old that shows Michael Douglas’ father Kirk. This brief moment was an homage of the son to his father whose inheritance he entered as the glamorous high-class rogue of the cinema.
Somehow this film is simply a classic search for the father. This is a story of a youth who becomes great with the help of a step-father and mentor who encourages him, teaches him many things and releases him into the world at the right moment. When this step-father dies hounded to death by hyenas, the youth who is still a young man in his heart seeks a new substitute father, stronger and more powerful than the first. With his help, he avenges the death of the first to the hyenas.
This sounds and is archaic. As with nearly all films by Oliver Stone, a son and his father, the death of the father which is liberation and yet strengthens the dependence of the son, are the themes.
ZERO-SUM GAMES OF THE FINANCIAL SHARKS
“Wall Street,” the 1987 film about the new financial world, the neo-conservative counter-model to Rhine capitalism, the replacement of the production paradigm with the profit paradigm, the world of brokers and yuppies and the new values that arose with the neoconservative revolution of Thatcher and Reagan. Oliver Stone emphasized this when the model already seemed to disappear in the whirlwind of the first great stock market crash of 1987.
A quarter century ago “Wall Street” was one of the representative films of the decade. Michael Douglas as the sardonic-roguish, charming-fascinating financial shark Gordon Gekko was a prophetic and stylish character often against the intentions of his creator-director. Like his sayings, the pair of suspenders imitated the yuppies of the 1990s. Who does not know “greed is good”? Or “if you need a friend, get a dog.” Or “It’s a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses. Money isn’t lost or made; it is simply transferred from one perception to another.” But the analyses of the financial market, which the film offers in the aphorism style and are still true today, often seen like trivializing or glossing over.
“The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealthy, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you buddy? It’s the free market. And you’re a part of it. You’ve got that killer instinct.”
In his blog  German director Christoph Hochhausler makes fun of Stone and criticizes “Wall Street’s” dramaturgical deficits. Hochhausler is clever and makes incredible films. In a single scene he can illustrate the essence of an ideology and its age in films. But films always contain messages even when they renounce on them. Stone always tries to transport messages by cinema and should be greatly appreciated for this. The problem with Stone is not with his description but the moralism in which he gets hooked.
BLITZKRIEG WARRIORS OF CAPITALISM
Gekko of capitalism was a Blitzkrieg warrior of capitalism. From today’s perspective, the Gekko of the 1980s seems more a nostalgic relic than a harbinger of our present.
This figure was a “Richard III” for our present, charming, demonic, one who says of himself in this sequel film, he has an ego “on the scale of Antarctica.” On the temperature, one must add: his coldness is connected to hate-love. Psychologically he is driven by the pleasure in self-destruction, a man who sees himself dismantled, an addict who knows the dangers and cannot kick the habit. The film treats this but also involves Stone himself. The identification is in the figure Gekko. Thus “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps” is a self-thematization.
“Wall Street” was also a panorama of a milieu where money and corruption rule. Satire is a by-product: Charlie Sheen as a little ambitious guy in a large office, his obsequiousness, the gourmet-temple, the tavern on the green in Central Park, the auctioneers where one acquires signed status symbols, luxury apartments as narcissist cathedrals of glass, chrome and the black market. The towers of the World Trade Center symbolize all this. Stone set the counter-point to a time when Hollywood elevated the yuppie into a myth. With films like “The Secret of My Success” and “Careers on the Left,” Stone knows what he speaks about. He is the son of a stock broker. Stone’s own search for his father is central in these two films, revolts against the vocational world of his father, against the chase for money and against “profiteering.”
This is also a milieu description: profiteering, lack of understanding for Asians and fixation on getting the customer “on the hook” at the end. Everything focuses on Manhattan’s upper class in visiting a New York “Art of Samurai” exhibition and the following dinner party. The redecorated New Yorker society refreshes its style. The permanent male hen-battle is also staged, a permanent but typical bondage to the winner-mentality – motor cycle races and decadence – the “hard talk” of the alpha-animals, “You stop telling lies about me, then I will stop telling the truth about you” is the general jargon. Greed is loud; the funds are called “Hydra” and “Locust.”
“ARE WE GOING UNDER?” – “WHO ISN’T?”
Gekko is here after 8 years in the slammer for insider-trading and purged of old colleagues, a Saul pretending to be Paul. He turns to the youth of today: “You’re all pretty much f-cked. You’re the Ninja generation. No income, no jobs, no assets. You have a lot to look forward to.” He recalls the tulip mania in the 17th century – “but who remembers?”
To us spectators, Gekko explains “steroid banking,” the bankrupt business model that spreads on and on like cancer and destroys the whole earth. “The mother of all evil is speculation,” we hear. “Was greed good? Today greed is legal.” Gekko says what he always thought: “Is everybody out there nuts? This populism certainly has dangers. But everything that sounds simplistic is not false. For the first time speculators were thematicized in a Hollywood film as weapons of mass destruction.
In the best dialogue, Gekko is indifferent: “Are we going under?” – “Who isn’t?” Shia LaBeouf does not fit the scenario as a brave favorite step-son: brave, tame, not a wolf, yielding to no temptation even in his head, interested in the clean all-American marriage…. This is presented too thickly and un-ironically.
The film points to perversions of the financial market: “We make money with the losses. How can you make money with losses?” Machines increasingly control human actions. Personal business relations are replaced by impersonal relations. Absurd oceans of money can be gained by betting against the bubble.
In a crash-course style, the film explains the financial crisis. This is like 1929 only faster, an aged banker explains. There is the following beautiful dialogue on the bailout by the state: “Selling this to congress is the problem” – “Scare them” – “How?” – “Tell them the truth” – “This is the biggest sellout in history” – “If we don’t do it, there will be no history.”
THE EMPIRE CRUMBLES – THE RICH REMAIN
All in all the film shows Oliver Stone ‘s fascination with this world in the form of an exact social study, how fascinated he is by its energy and its style. “Wall Street” is clearly marked by the delight in its subject – which Stone then overcompensates with more moralism (The overall framework with the gifted young broker (Shia La Beouf) who as Gekko’s step-son hatches a plot against an old enemy, remains very pale). The film is an amalgam of satire, pamphlet and moral cantata. As a result, it seems to sit a little between all the stools at the end.
In the last scene, family values are emphasized again: “We are all mixed beings.” One is not free of one’s father. All morality gives way to money. How high is your price? Everyone can ask him- or herself. Oliver Stone shows heroes who act just like the rogues. They also make money with speculation and destroy their enemies with rumors. They only act for the right cause, clean energy, unborn children and the family – dirty old men’s corny stories.
Stone knows this. Gekko gives an answer to all open questions: “Just three words: Buy my book!” or “Buy my film!”
“True capitalism is about disaster.” That is the last sentence of the film. Stone describes a doomsday scenario. “King Lear” is the model this time, not Richard III. The empire crumbles. The rich remain and the fathers.