Gekko is cast as the fictional archetypal hustler; the big-time trader/speculator/corpo- rate raider who made “greed is good” the signature catch phrase of the go-go 1980s.
In the Oliver Stone film, Gekko is played to a tee by actor Michael Douglas. Douglas, in fact, won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Gekko, the unscrupulous corporate raider who stops at nothing to get what he wants.
Nearly twenty years later, the fictional Gekko played by Douglas had left enough of an impression that he was used on the cover of the June 2005 Fortune magazine at right to spotlight a story on the new greed of Wall Street. And more recently, by 2008-2009, during the latest financial crisis, with greed still doing its thing big time, references to Gekko and his quips were once again being heard. And by May 2010, a sequel to the 1987 film, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, was released, featuring a reformed Gordon Gekko, having served his prison term. In the piece that follows here, however, the first film is the focus, exploring its history and audience reaction, and why in some cases its characters were emulated and its central message missed and/or unheeded.
Producer Oliver Stone set his Wall Street film in the mid-1980s, around the time several insider trading scandals and prosecutions were in the news. The film also portrayed the high-flying life styles of New York traders rolling in their Wall Street largesse during that era. In addition to capturing the essence of the Gordon Gekko character and his “take-no-prisoners” school of capitalism, the film also featured the “wanna-be-like Gordon” strivings of young trader, Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen. Fox soon becomes Gekko’s protégé and partner in crime, living in the fast lane for a time, with an Upper East Side condo, beautiful live-in companion Darien (Daryl Hannah), while making bundles of money — all courtesy of Gordon Gekko. But young Bud eventually sees through his hot-shot mentor and the damages his wheeling and dealing can cause — including one plan to buy, eviscerate, and sell off as parts, the airplane company his working-class father, Carl Fox, is employed by ( Sheen’s fictional dad in this case is also his real one, Martin Sheen, playing a union leader who tries to warn his son that Gekko is using him). Bud gets caught by the Feds while doing some insider handiwork for Gekko, but later turns government informant, wearing a wire, to help send his former boss to jail. The film ends with Bud heading to court, presumably to seal the case against Gekko.One of the more memorable and much quoted moments of the film comes when Gekko gives a speech at a shareholders’ meeting of Teldar Paper, a company he is planning to take over. This is the famous “greed is good” speech as Gekko defends his planned takeover, pointing to the bloated and wasteful ways of post-War corporate America, using Teldar’s management as Exhibit A, and claiming himself the company’s saviour — a “liberator” of value (see sidebar below).
Parts of this fictional speech are reported to have come from actual speeches that real-world Wall Streeters had given — namely by corporate raider Carl Icahn and financial wheeler-dealer Ivan Boesky. Ichan had railed against corporate management who owned little of their own companies, had too many high-level executives, and were otherwise inefficient. And Ivan Boesky is credited with inspiring the “greed is good” line, paraphrased from a May 18, 1986 commencement address he gave at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Business Administration. Boesky said then: “Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” Boesky was later one of those convicted of insider-trading.
“Greed is Good”
In the film, Gordon Gekko is given the opportunity to address the Teldar Company’s shareholders assembled in a large meeting hall. This is the speech that ends with his famous “greed is good” remarks. During the meeting, Gekko takes to the floor, microphone in hand, thanking the company chairman, Mr. Cromwell, for the opportunity to speak — adding, “after all, I am Teldar’s single largest shareholder.” Gekko then proceeds to walk down the center aisle of the meeting, with shareholders all around him, offering his views:GEKKO: Well, ladies and gentlemen, we’re not here to indulge in fantasy, but in political and economic reality. America has become a second-rate power. Its trade deficit and its fiscal deficit are at nightmare proportions. Now, in the days of the free market, when our country was a top industrial power, there was accountability to the stockholder. The Carnegies, the Mellons, the men that built this great industrial empire, made sure of it because it was their money at stake. Today, manage- ment has no stake in the company!
GEKKO: All together, these men sitting up here [pointing to Teldar management] own less than 3 percent of the company. And where does Mr. Cromwell put his million-dollar salary? Not in Teldar stock; he owns less than 1 percent.
GEKKO: You own the company. That’s right — you, the stockholder. And you are all being royally screwed over by these, these bureaucrats, with their steak lunches, their hunting and fishing trips, their corporate jets and golden parachutes.
CROMWELL: This is an outrage! You’re out of line, Gekko!GEKKO: Teldar Paper, Mr. Cromwell, Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents, each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost $110 million dollars last year, and I’ll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents.
GEKKO: The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. In the last seven deals that I’ve been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you. I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them!
GEKKO: The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good.
GEKKO: 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, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed — you mark my words — will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
GEKKO: Thank you very much.
Not A BlockbusterOliver Stone’s Wall Street in 1987 was not a blockbuster at the box office. It grossed about $43 million, finishing at No. 26 for the domestic box office. But 1987, it should be remembered, was a year when the real world stock market had a bit of crash in October. The movie came out in December, and despite what some might have seen as good timing, the audience for business stories then was not exactly torrid. In addition, some reviewers had their criticisms, while others were not especially inclined toward the film. Still, Wall Street had its fans, leaving lasting impressions on some young viewers. Recalling in later years his initial reaction to the film, one reviewer at IGN.com wrote: “…I love Wall Street. When it came out, I read Ken Lipper’s novelization to fully immerse myself in it. In my mid-teens I bought the script at a convention and learned it cover to cover….” And at least one Wall Street player who viewed the film at a special Wall Street screening in December 1987 offered his impression to a New York Times reporter: “It laid bare the real motivations,” he said, requesting anonymity at the time. “People pretend that they are doing something noble, raising capital to support America’s businesses, but Wall Street is just about making money.” In the film, the character played by Hal Holbrook, a wizened and more thoughtful stockbroker, attempts to mentor young Bud Fox at the trading firm where both work.
Holbrook represents, in Oliver Stone’s words, “the positive forces in the market.” He is also part Oliver Stone’s father, who was in real life a stockbroker for 40 years and believed Wall Street “could do a lot of good,” according to Stone. In the film, Holbrook, represents the old patient school of investing, and he tries to teach Bud Fox the ethics of the business. But Fox, at first, is more enamored of the deal, deal maker Gekko, and the quick, big money.“It’s easy to see why Gekko’s elegant evil is more enticing than Holbrook’s broadly played naysayer or even Martin Sheen’s appealing father figure,” wrote the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley in her December 1987 review of the film. “He’s cocky as a test pilot, amoral as a vampire and fanatic as the ayatollah.” Kempley continues: “Douglas plays Gekko with a terrible intensity. He raves and rants, but he has a rascal’s humor. ‘The thing you’ve got to remember about WASPs: They love animals and can’t stand people,’ he confides to his protégé, explaining his support of the Bronx Zoo.”
Gekko, in fact, is quick with the quips that sum up the tough-guy trader ethos: “Lunch is for wimps,” he says at one point. And he has a bunch of others as well — “Money never sleeps”; “What’s worth doing is worth doing for money”; “If you need a friend, get a dog.” “If you’re not inside your outside.” Here’s Gekko boasting to Bud about how he made some of his early money: “You see that building? I bought that building ten years ago. My first real estate deal. Sold it two years later, made an $800,000 profit. It was better than sex. At the time I thought that was all the money in the world. Now it’s a day’s pay.” Gekko also tells Fox during the film:
“…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 naive 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. Stick around pal, I’ve still got a lot to teach you.”
But perhaps one of the best lines in the film goes to Carl Fox, Martin Sheen’s character, trying to counsel his son on the better course: “…Money’s only something you need in case you don’t die tomorrow…” And here’s another from Bud Fox’s stock-trading co-worker, Marv: “We’re all just one trade away from humility.”
“What’s intriguing about Wall Street…,” wrote film critic Robert Ebert in his 1987 review, “is that the movie’s real target isn’t Wall Street criminals who break the law. Stone’s target is the value system that places profits and wealth and the Deal above any other consideration. His film is an attack on an atmosphere of financial competitiveness so ferocious that ethics are simply irrelevant, and the laws are sort of like the referee in pro wrestling — part of the show.”Although Wall Street was not a box office smash when it first came out, the film enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in 1989 and 1990 as the prosecutions of Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken unfolded for their insider trading. Milken, best known as the “Junk Bond King” in the 1980s, was indicted on 98 counts of racketeering and fraud and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, though he served less than two. By 1990 Newsweek had a cover story that asked “Is Greed Dead?” Michael Douglas, in any case, left behind a memorable character in Gordon Gekko; a character who has stayed with the culture for some years now, and is periodically mentioned whenever Wall Street excesses flow. Through the 2000s, the film or Gekko received occasional mention, as in the 2005 Fortune magazine story. At the film’s 20th anniversary in 2007, a special edition DVD was released that included an introduction by Oliver Stone, extensive deleted scenes, “greed is good” featurettes, and interviews with Michael Douglas and Martin Sheen.
Lessons Learned?Oliver Stone’s intention with his film in 1987 was to show Wall Street’s excesses and its callousness, and with Gekko, a repulsive character, whose quips and creed were put on display as bad example. Yet if the film’s message was meant to discourage Gekko’s brand of behavior, it may have fallen short. Some critics, in fact, felt the film was a little too good at glorifying the values it set out to deplore. The film’s screenwriter, Stanley Weiser, actors Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas, and Oliver Stone would all acknowledge this to some degree, noting that people would tell them they admired the Gekko and Fox characters in their hard-charging Wall Street styles and money-making schemes. Some even said they went into business or became stockbrokers because of what they saw in the film. Douglas told a reporter that the continued resonance of Gekko in this popular vein was “probably been the biggest surprise of my career; that people say that this seductive villain has motivated [them] to go into this business.” Oliver Stone has said much the same thing. “I can’t tell you how many young people who have come up to me and said ‘I went to Wall Street because of that movie’,” he said in a 2009 conversation with New York Times reporter Tim Arango. “…So I think the movie was misunderstood by some,” Stone explains, “because it was about a horrible thing going on; about how people would worship money at all costs.” Stone, who today also teaches college students in a film course, has told them, “Wall Street can be the engine of capitalism,” to create opportunity, but he adds that Wall Street has increasingly not done that “because there’s more money in speculation.”
In more recent years, closer to the 2007-2009 economic crisis, references to Gordon Gekko have come around a bit more as Stone intended. Now Gekko’s name appears to be finding some new instructional currency. “Today we are still clean- ing up the mess of the 21st-century children of Gor- don Gekko.”
– Kevin Rudd, Australian P.M. In an October 8th, 2008 speech by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, titled “The Children of Gordon Gekko,” for example, Rudd takes aim at the financial crisis of 2007-2008. “It is perhaps time now to admit that we did not learn the full lessons of the greed-is-good ideology,” he said. “And today we are still cleaning up the mess of the 21st-century children of Gordon Gekko.” Similarly, in Italy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a Vatican official, cited Gekko’s greed is good slogan in remarks he made in July 2009 to Italian Senators in Rome. Cardinal Bertone said the free market had been replaced by a greed market, blaming such a mentality for the 2007-2008 financial crisis. And in September 2009, former Harvard Business School graduate, Philip Delves Broughton, now a writer for the London Evening Standard, observed:
…Gekko’s Greed is Good speech is still shown to MBA students at business schools. It is intended as a morality lesson, but ends up feeling more like a pep talk. At my old business school, Harvard, Gekko’s speech electrified a snoozy morning class on leadership. By the time Gekko was done berating the board of Teldar Paper, the entire class was grinning and alert.
For most MBA students that speech is less a parody than a guiding phil- osophy. Over the past year, as Wall Street froze hiring and many MBA students struggled to find work, a wave of ethical re-evaluation swept business school campuses. A group of Harvard Business School students even came up with an MBA oath, vowing to be responsible, law-abiding, civic-minded business people.
It was not the kind of thing anyone bothered with when the economy was roaring along and students could still fantasize about gliding from business school into a world of Gekko-ish riches.
Still, among bankers in recent months, there has been some one-upping of the Gekko creed with a new twist. In November 2009, Barclays CEO John Varley stood at a church lectern in London telling his audience that “profit is not satanic.” The 53-year-old head of Britain’s second-biggest bank was there in part to defend high pay to bankers. “Profit is not satanic.”
-John Varley, Barclays Bank Rewarding high-performing bankers with more pay, he explained, didn’t conflict with Christian values. Bankers in Britain had taken to the churches in response to critics who charged them with creating great disparities in wealth and inequality. A few weeks earlier, Goldman Sachs International adviser, Brian Griffiths, giving a talk at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral had stated: “The injunction of Jesus to love others as ourselves is an endorsement of self-interest…. We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieving greater prosperity and opportunity for all.” Gordon Gekko, no doubt, would be smiling over that one, but others might find it downright un-Christian.
Meanwhile, Gordon Gekko himself is set to make a renewed appearance on the scene in a forthcoming sequel of the Wall Street film, this one set in the current financial world.
A sequel to 1987’s Wall Street film has been rumored for years, and in October 2008, it was reported that 20th Century Fox began fast-tracking production for a follow-up film. The sequel, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, is scheduled for release some time in 2010. This film finds Gordon Gekko released from prison, having served a 20-year sentence for his nefarious deeds. Now, however, he faces a much different Wall Street than the one he left. “Gekko would no longer exist in this new Wall Street,” says Oliver Stone. “The big players now are major banks and hedge funds … the money’s too big.” In the new film, Stone says, “greed is now legal.” This version of Wall Street will draw inspiration from the current credit crunch and money-making schemes of hedge fund swindlers. There will also be more emphasis on the role of investment banks and less on traditional stock trading. The film will have more of a global scope as well, ranging from Wall Street to Abu Dabai, the Far East, and other locations, including New York’s Federal Reserve Bank.
New York Times business columnist, Gretchen Morgenson, learning of the forthcoming sequel in September 2009, and musing on the prospects for a new storyline for the fresh-from-prison Gordon Gekko, offered the following possibilities:
…Gordon Gekko is delighted to see that his views on greed have spawned a growth industry. No longer must he endure criticism when he preaches that greed is good; his concept has in fact gained acceptance at the highest reaches of commerce. Even better, the United States government has taken the view that on the rare occasions when greed goes bad, the taxpayer will be there to pick up the tab.
To be sure, Mr. Gekko is sorry to have missed out on the billions he could have made during the subprime mortgage boom. But he recognizes that his exit from prison is perfectly timed in another way. In the aftermath of the credit bubble, 17,000-square-foot mansions in Greenwich, Conn., go begging, Gulfstream jets can be bought on the cheap and prestigious golf clubs no longer have years-long waiting lists.
Because he went to jail for securities fraud and probably agreed to sanctions in the case, Mr. Gekko is barred from working for a financial firm or becoming a registered investment adviser. Still there are other possibilities: starting a hedge fund that accepts only a handful of wealthy and sophisticated clients, for example. Based in the Cayman Islands, the Gekko Insider Insights Fund will almost certainly specialize in high-frequency trading, the investment strategy du jour. Just as certain: investors, eager to hire a manager of such notoriety and business acumen, will throw billions Mr. Gekko’s way.Others are hoping that whatever form the sequel takes, it might actually do some good. “Sequels don’t have a great reputation,” offers Philip Delves Broughton, writing in the London Evening Standard, “but if Stone and Douglas can pull this one off, if they can crystallize the horrors which unfolded at the summit of Wall Street these past few years, they will do us all a great service.”
At the very least, it can only be hoped that Mr. Gekko, or other “greed is good” successors who may emerge in this film, do not go happily sailing off into some loophole-filled Caribbean sunset with new scam intact. Rather, some clear comeuppance and swift justice would be welcome — especially so there can be no doubt about take-away message. Then again, the real world events of the financial melt down of 2007-2008, ably reported in a number of probing book-length accounts to date, offer standing lessons that provide the scarier truths.
Additional business-related stories at this website can be found at the “Business & Society” category page, and include, for example: “Flash Boy Lewis” (covering Wall Street’s “flash trading” and Michael Lewis’s publishing history); “Celebrity Buffett” (Warren Buffett investing history and his rise to mainstream notice); “Empire Newhouse”( history of the Newhouse publishing empire through 2012 and Reddit.com); and “Murdoch’s NY Deals” (covering the rise and 1970s American expansion of the Rupert Murdoch media empire). Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 4 February 2010
Last Update: 11 April 2017
Comments to: email@example.com
Jack Doyle, “Wall Street’s Gekko, 1980s-2010,”
PopHistoryDig.com, February 4, 2010.
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