Wednesday, October 8, 2008

WALL STREET and Wall Street: The Lasting Appeal of Gordon Gekko

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

WALL STREET and Wall Street: The Lasting Appeal of Gordon Gekko

Stanley Weiser, co-writer of Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” penned a terrific piece titled “’Wall Street’s’ message was not Greed is Good,” for The Los Angeles Times on Sunday, in which he lamented the mythologizing of Michael Douglas’ master of the universe Gordon Gekko with the following:

Gekko’s character was written to create an engaging, charming, but deceitful and brutal being. I have nevertheless run into quite a number of younger people, who upon discovering that I co-wrote the film, wax rhapsodic about it . . . but often for the wrong reasons.

A typical example would be a business executive or a younger studio development person spouting something that goes like this: “The movie changed my life. Once I saw it I knew that I wanted to get into such and such business. I wanted to be like Gordon Gekko.”

The flattery is disarming and ego-stoking, but then neurons fire and alarm bells go off. “You have succeeded with this movie, but you’ve also failed. You gave these people hope to become greater asses than they may already be.”

While I can understand Weiser’s horror in this idolization of amoral Gekko, especially in the wake of the real Wall Street’s collapse, I also couldn’t help but think back to a column I wrote in which I dissected Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal of Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.” Kubrick also was sufficiently horrified by the hero-worshipping of Alex, by the copycat crimes by droog wannabes that occurred in England after the film’s release (enough to yank it from distribution in that country). But the idea that either Weiser or Kubrick would be shocked (“utterly shocked” in Weiser’s sarcastic appraisal of Gekko’s view of the financial meltdown) by this pedestal raising strikes me as either naive or disingenuous. Put sexy actors in passionate roles and what do you think is gonna happen?

For people are attracted to Gekko, they want to be like the ruthless financier, for the same reason they’re attracted to sociopathic Alex – not because he’s greedy or evil, but because he’s passionate. Villains are often sexy because they’re the ones onscreen with the most creative fire in their bellies. For Gekko money is just tangible proof of power, a by-product of desire, not a goal in and of itself. If someone is inspired to be like Gekko it’s not the trampling on bodies that is the allure, but the love of the game, of the hustle. (I’d venture to guess Gordon Gekko in jail would make for a fascinating sequel. I’m sure he’d still be wheeling and dealing with the inmates – as addicted to the hustle as a past-his-prime fighter to the ring.) Like with Alex the bodies that pile up are merely collateral damage (save for Terence Stamp’s Larry Wildman who like a rival Mafioso had it coming – and Donald Trumped Gekko in the end).

For lest we forget, that infamous “greed is good” speech also includes a reference to the “greed of love” – for it’s all the same to Gekko. Greed is only the catalyst towards pursuing passion. Gekko’s point that everyone who excels at what they do is greedy is the simple, unvarnished truth. (Even those who society deems “selfless” – the Mother Theresa’s of the world – do what they do because it makes them feel good, the more they give the more they get back in the adrenaline high of love.) Gekko’s enthusiasm – his love of the financial chess games – is addictive. It’s the rush of seeing how much you can get away with – how fast you can go without crashing – how close and for how long you can dance on the edge. Who wouldn’t want this ultimate high? “Better than sex” is how Gekko describes his first real estate deal – and no wonder. Power is one mind-blowing orgasm.

In other words, the recent Wall Street woes could be read as a result of too much unbridled, unchecked passion, and not the fault of greed – or passion – itself. Weiser also notes that “After so many encounters with Gekko admirers or wannabes, I wish I could go back and rewrite the greed line to this: ‘Greed is Good. But I’ve never seen a Brinks truck pull up to a cemetery.’” Yes, Gordon Gekko certainly would agree that everything in moderation, including sex and greed, is good. For as Gekko learned over two decades ago, and Wall Street’s titans only two weeks ago, the problem lies not with corporate capitalism, but with our ever-changing definition of moderation itself.

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