In 1987 Michael Douglas stepped into the lizard-skin shoes of Gordon Gekko, a cold-blooded Wall Street raider who played by his own rules—which, of course, meant no rules at all. Oliver Stone's over-the-top take on greed dished up a caricature of our culture's love affair with money. And the film still resonates today, in part because Mr. Gekko is the kind of amoral antihero moviegoers love to hate—Darth Vader in a three piece suit, if you will.
Fast-forward nearly two-and-a-half decades, and some things have changed … while others haven't. As Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (also directed by Stone) opens in 2001, Gordon Gekko is completing an eight-year prison stint for all the bad things he's done. The man who had everything now has nothing. Even the potent symbol of prestige he once brandished like a sword, his brick-like cell phone, is now just a mocking reminder of all that he's lost.
Has he changed? Has prison chastened him and helped him realize what really matters in life? Or is he still a wickedly manipulative conniver? For that matter, has anyone on Wall Street learned anything? Or, as Gekko once infamously noted, does everyone still subscribe to the philosophy that "greed is good"?
Seven years after getting out of prison, Gordon has become an unlikely prophet of doom. Wall Street's greedy practices, he argues in a new book, are unsustainable because they seek to conjure wealth from debt without actually producing anything. Attending one of his fire-and-brimstone speeches is Jake Moore, an idealistic and talented young trader whose storied brokerage house, KZI, is teetering on the brink of ruin as the market begins its meltdown in 2008. Jake's girlfriend (and soon to be fiancée) is Gordon's estranged daughter, Winnie.
Winnie wants nothing to do with her father after living through the carnage left in the wake of his voracious love affair with money. Gordon's prison sentence devastated her brother, who eventually died of a drug overdose. And Winnie can't bring herself to forgive, let alone give Gordon a second chance.
But Jake needs Gordon's help—the kind of help only a man who has slithered through the dark cesspools of Wall Street greed can provide. Jake knows that a longtime rival named Bretton James is responsible for the manipulative rumor-mongering that took KZI down, but to prove it—and to get revenge—Jake's going to have to dive even deeper into the belly of the beast.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is, like its predecessor, a morality tale concerned with our culture's money-loving values.
In true Oliver Stone fashion, Gordon delivers a speech that questions the moneymaking methods of many investment banks and brokerage houses on Wall Street. Speaking to a group of college students, he tells them that 40% of all American companies' profits the year before came from financial services that produced no actual product. How? By leveraging their debt to astronomical levels. Gordon labels these practices "systemic, malignant … like cancer." Arguments can be made on all sides of our country's financial practices, but that's not really the point here. The point is this: Not only is greed apparently good, as Gordon quips, "now it seems it's legal." He also criticizes consumers who refinanced their homes to subsidize a materialistic lifestyle they ultimately couldn't afford.
Other characters exhibit a kind of idealism and social conscience that wasn't present in the first film. Jake loves the challenge of making money, but he's not motivated by mammon alone. He's deeply concerned with the environment and spends a great deal of time working to provide capital funding to a research team in California that's close to a breakthrough in nuclear fusion. Because of what it stands for, Jake is willing to back the company even when no one else believes in it.
Winnie runs a website dedicated to exposing corruption and deception in the government and media. She wants nothing to do with riches for riches' sake, an attitude she knows will ultimately destroy relationships.
Speaking of relationships, Gordon seems sincerely interested in reconciling with Winnie, telling her that she's all he's got. And he has a genuine affinity for Jake, taking him under his wing almost like a long-lost son. Gordon and Jake's mentor, Lou, both say that our connections with people are more important than chasing the next dollar. Lou gives Jake a bonus of $1.45 million and says to him, "Marry Gekko's daughter. Make some kids together. Spend time with them while they're young."
Jake, though, has been lying to Winnie about his business and his relationship with her father, and his deception ruptures their bond. It's a solid illustration of how not telling the truth can badly undermine trust and intimacy. Winnie longs for Jake to be "safe" but tells him his lies have made that impossible.
A subplot involves Jake helping his struggling mother, a real estate agent, financially. Jake and Winnie have an interesting conversation about whether or not his financial aid is enabling her bad decisions and poor money management. And while Gordon's motivations ultimately prove to be murkier than anyone realizes, in the end he tries to show Winnie that he does love her—and that helps to repair her fractured relationship with Jake.
During her pregnancy, we see several ultrasound images of Winnie's baby.
Bretton has a painting of the Roman god Saturn eating his own son. The theory of evolution is tied to the emergence of life and history's many speculative financial bubbles. A visual montage of money and currency in the closing credits includes the slogans "In God We Trust" as well as "In Greed We Trust."
Jake and Winnie are an unmarried, cohabiting couple. We see them in bed together, and they share kisses. Winnie gets out of bed wearing one of Jake's shirts and (apparently) not much underneath. We see Jake shirtless in one scene and wearing boxers and a T-shirt in another. Two scenes take place at clubs where scantily clad women dance in the background. Women wear low-cut tops.
A joke brings up the old saw about sex drives dying after marriage. Another alludes to oral sex.
Lou jumps in front of a subway train. (We see him begin to fall.) Gordon crudely says of Lou's choice to kill himself in the wake of his company's collapse, "No one else in this racket has had the balls to commit suicide. It's an honorable thing to do."
Crude or Profane Language
Two or three f-words, one s-word. God's name gets abused four or five times (including three pairings with "d‑‑n"). Jesus' name is misused a half-dozen times. We hear a handful of uses each of "d‑‑n," "b‑‑tard, " "b‑‑ch," "a‑‑" and "p‑‑‑."
Drug and Alcohol Content
After getting his massive bonus, Jake goes to a club and has several drinks (champagne, shots). We know he's drunk because his vision of a woman who's hitting on him repeatedly goes blurry. Jake's mom mentions Jack Daniel's and implies that his father was an alcoholic. Most meetings and meals include wine or champagne. Bretton and Gordon smoke cigars.
Several conversations reference the fact that Gordon's son overdosed on drugs. Gordon talks about how he tried to help his son, including paying his son's dealer not to sell him drugs.
Other Negative Elements
Jake and Gordon are, to a large extent, compelled by their desire to pay Bretton back for the ways he's wronged them. Jake hides the fact that he's been meeting with Gordon from Winnie for much of the film, knowing she'd be displeased.
Jake and Bretton recklessly race motorcycles on a twisting road. A taxi driver careens through Manhattan. (He nearly hits a woman, then ends up having a screaming match with her.) Gordon disparagingly compares a company to a wife who has "all the power and half the money." Lou makes a dismissive racial statement about Indians.
[Spoiler Warning] Winnie warns Jake that her father would never change, and that belief is proven true when Gordon shrewdly manipulates Jake and Winnie into temporarily (they think) giving him control of her $100 million trust fund. He tells them that he can keep the IRS away from it and protect Winnie from becoming liable for some of his previous crimes. He then steals the money from her to launch a new business enterprise in London. He later tries to justify his actions to Jake by saying that Winnie had previously agreed to give some of the money back to him when he got out of prison.
Oliver Stone and controversy have gone together like thunder and lightning for decades now. His "unconventional" takes on John F. Kennedy's assassination, Nixon's presidency and the Vietnam war, among other things, have earned him kudos and criticism in nearly equal measure.
And I'm sure his thinly veiled fictional rendering of the financial meltdown of 2008 will have insiders squawking about the financial events and jargon that he tosses around onscreen in brokerages and secret meetings of the Federal Reserve. But the messages he delivers seem clear and irrefutable: People, not money, matter. Time is short. Greed destroys relationships … and organizations … and whole countries. Family and children are worth the investment of both time and money. And deception dissolves relationships. Philanthropy and concern for the environment get approving nods along the way as well.
Comparing the character development in his two Wall Street films, Stone said, "Gekko was a one-dimensional figure in [the first] movie, and I liked him for it. He was shallow but interesting—a reptile. But now he's got a [grown] daughter. He's a much older man, and he's closer to his death. He's facing a life without love, a life without meaning. So he has to come to a decision. Every single character has to come to a decision."
I watched Wall Street right before Money Never Sleeps, and it's also worth noting that Stone has, perhaps surprisingly, dialed down the content in the sequel as well. Wall Street had a bank vault full of the harshest profanities, full-frontal nudity and onscreen cocaine use. Money Never Sleeps includes a couple of f-words, skimpy costumes and a tragic suicide.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko; Shia LaBeouf as Jake Moore; Carey Mulligan as Winnie Gekko; Josh Brolin as Bretton James; Susan Sarandon as Jake's Mother; Frank Langella as Louis Zabel
Oliver Stone ( )
20th Century Fox
September 24, 2010
December 21, 2010