Yesterday Oliver Stone’s sequel to Wall Street, Money Never Sleeps, opened in theaters around the country. In it America will hear Hollywood’s usual message; finance and business is evil and greed is the culprit. The movie is set in 2008 just before the financial crisis hit. Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is out of jail after doing prison time for insider trading and is on a book tour. His book’s title – “Is Greed Good?” – recalls his famous speech made at the end of the original Wall Street movie …
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, (for) knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
In an interview clip on Youtube, Michael Douglas recounts how many investment bankers have come up to him over the years to say how inspiring the Greed is Good speech was. He laments that they seemed to have missed the real message, which is, of course, that “greed is bad!”
In the new movie he gives another speech to a crowd of listeners who enthusiastically applaud at every anti-business, greed-is-bad, remark. Unfortunately for the storytellers though, this speech is not nearly as inspiring and is unlikely to be long remembered.
As the story progresses and the near financial collapse occurs, the movie shows us a mixture of fast-paced trading scenes, discussions of bubbles and the financial terminology that accompanies it, and panoramas of wealthy people living opulently. The clear message is that unrestrained greed by those in the financial sector, fueled the extravagant lifestyles and brought the financial system to the brink of collapse.
What’s touted as good in the movie are operating websites that expose the injustices of the world, alternative non-carbon based energy (in particular unlimited energy from water using fusion), and nursing. As some other movie reviewers have said, it also tries to emphasize the importance of family, although I can’t say that came across very strongly for me.
What’s missing from the film to make it worth the watch is any lesson about a viable alternative. Mostly the movie tells us, greed is out there and we’re gonna get screwed over and over again by it. This is disappointing especially because Hollywood once did know how to make movies that carried a clear lesson.
Probably the best movie about business ethics that I know about is a film called “Executive Suite.” It was a blockbuster movie back in 1954 with a cast of Hollywood legends: William Holden, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, Barbara Stanwyck, Shelley Winters, and June Allyson.
This story explores two separate approaches to business; the Loren Shaw (Fredric March) approach is one based on reverence for the bottom line no matter what methods are used to achieve it. He engages in blackmail to achieve his position, is proud of accounting tricks to reduce tax incidence, and is willing to push low quality products to reduce costs. The alternative is the MacDonald Walling (William Holden) approach based on hard work and innovation. Walling is the VP in charge of research at the furniture plant. His primary goal is to produce superior products that customers will desire and the workers themselves can be proud to make.
The moral superiority of one approach over the other is obvious by the end of the movie. Clearly greed inspiring hard work, innovation and pride wins out over greed inspiring fraud, blackmail and accounting tricks.
I’m sure Oliver Stone, knows these lessons. Stone provides the commentary on the Executive Suite DVD so he knows that movie well. I’m also quite sure that the producers of Wall Street don’t consider the money they will make on the movie to be objectionable. And there is good reason for that. It isn’t objectionable. Hollywood is making money by producing services that people wish to purchase in the marketplace. If they produce a superior service, they’ll make lots of money and it will satisfy their greed. That’s OK because they are following the Walling approach. It’s just too bad they don’t get that message across in today’s movies.
In America today, we need to resurrect the Walling approach to business. We need to be reminded how aspiration, inspiration and greed, appropriately directed, can generate a workplace filled with well-treated, motivated, workers striving to produce a superior product for its customers. Indeed, Hollywood can show us a way out of the current economic crisis; too bad it is not today’s Hollywood.