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'Greed is Good' cinema

Sizing up the big-screen image of money managers, before and after the fall

By Linda Tischler
Globe Correspondent / October 17, 2010

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NEW YORK — True story: At the height of the boom, a friend got engaged to a banker. The ring he bought her was as big as a gumball, and as vulgar as the pinkie ring on a Mafia don. When she protested its size, he insisted it only expressed the enormity of his love. She later confided her discomfort to a friend of his, another Wall Street player, who set her straight: “It’s not about you, babe.’’

This story sprang to mind during a scene in Oliver Stone’s latest overindulgence, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,’’ when Jake Moore, the young trader played by Shia LaBeouf, gets his first obscenely large bonus check and heads straight to Bulgari to buy his sweetie, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), a super-sized stone. Winnie’s thinly-veiled horror at the size of the rock signals that, while she may be Gordon Gekko’s daughter, this apple has fallen far from daddy’s avaricious tree.

In the latest crop of movies in which bankers and money managers play a starring role, greed is no longer good: It’s the linchpin that has destroyed lives from Iceland to Albuquerque, while the perps who set the whole catastrophic mechanism in play go their merry bling-buying ways. They may be miserable on Main Street, but on Wall Street, despite the shame of TARP, the threat of the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform bill, Senate hearings, and European threats to rein in compensation, the money keeps spinning, and the financiers keep hauling it home in Hefty bags, convinced they deserve every Benjamin.

As Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, famously cracked, “We’re doing God’s work.’’

Given the public outrage likely to follow the next round of films about the financial industry, Blankfein shouldn’t expect to be fitted for his wings just yet. Fangs might be more appropriate.

Forget the threat of Cold War Ruskies, plastique-packing terrorists, or demonic alien invaders. In the wake of the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression, there’s no silver-screen villain scarier than a banker. Far from the halcyon days when a loan officer like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life’’ could be a town’s hedge against financial ruin, the current crop of financiers — both fictional and, even more terrifying, nonfictional — are the least palatable of the new vampires, sucking the lifeblood from 401(k)s, mutual funds, houses, and livelihoods. Victims wake up, pale, depleted, and broke while, engorged with cash, the incubi race to Tourneau for yet another Vacheron Constantin watch.

While the latest “Wall Street’’ movie packages its contempt for the whole venal crowd in entertaining trappings, Charles Ferguson’s just-released documentary, “Inside Job,’’ is an altogether different matter. This film, a feature-length investigation of what really happened to bring our entire financial system to the brink, is harder to stomach simply because it’s true. Around the globe, people are living with the consequences of that manic perversion of the system every day.

Ferguson admits that he hopes his film will do for the financial industry what “An Inconvenient Truth’’ did for global warning: incite a movement hellbent on reform.

“I hope the American people start getting angry and active,’’ he says during a recent interview in New York.

The director also hopes his movie will nudge life to imitate art: He’d like to see a few of the “stars’’ of his film end up on the steps of the Manhattan court house, just as Gordon Gekko’s protégé Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) does in the final scene of the original “Wall Street.’’

“I hope some of these guys go to jail,’’ he says. “The fact that there have been zero prosecutions of senior Wall Street executives as a result of the crisis is one of the most disturbing things. Many crimes were committed.’’

Regardless, just as Gekko couldn’t resist getting back in the game after leaving the slammer, Ferguson thinks most financiers won’t be deterred by a slap on the wrist.

“It’s very seductive to play this high stakes game,’’ he says. “I think these guys still hope that if they hold on for a while, it will blow over. If you look at their bonuses and lobbying efforts, I don’t see much change.’’

In the past few years, as the schemers pulling the levers of the market have gotten more audacious, the number of films documenting their bad behavior has escalated. Last year we had Michael Moore’s typical no-holds-barred assault in “Capitalism: A Love Story,’’ and Michael Samuels’s “The Last Days of Lehman Brothers,’’ a drama based on the real-life story of the September weekend in 2008 when the bank went down, precipitating a tsunami of foreclosures, putting 25,000 Lehman employees out of work, and vaporizing $650 billion. Before that there was 2005’s “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,’’ which, while not about banker types per se, documented the antics of their soulmates, the corrupt manipulators of the energy market. And there was 1999’s “Rogue Trader,’’ admittedly a box office flop but still an enlightening look at the real-life story of Barings Bank trader Nick Leeson, whose risky wheeling and dealing cost his bank $1.4 billion, forcing it into bankruptcy.

While these films were based on actual events, fictionalized versions of the banking life have included psychological crime thrillers (1996’s “American Psycho,’’ in which Christian Bale plays a Manhattan investment banker with a hobby of raping, killing, and mutilating victims in his off-hours) and high-octane dramas (2000’s “Boiler Room’’ with Giovanni Ribisi and Vin Diesel as hungry young brokers on the move). There was even an Aussie entry called “The Bank’’ in 2001, with Anthony LaPaglia as a soulless CEO out to control the world’s stock markets.

Taking up where George Bailey left off, there have also been many gentler depictions of the men who run the markets. In 1983’s “Trading Places,’’ Eddie Murphy plays a Philadelphia street hustler who is thrown into the world of commodities investing, while a snobby investor, played by Dan Aykroyd, finds himself thrown into a life of crime. The romp grossed a hefty $90.4 million at the box office.

And in 2000’s “The Family Man,’’ a bachelor Wall Street investment banker (Nicolas Cage) working on a multibillion-dollar deal on Christmas Eve wakes up the following morning in New Jersey to find himself living as he might have if he hadn’t chosen ambition over his down-to-earth girlfriend years before. Needless to say, this being the movies, he winds up discovering the priceless virtues of family, which compensate for the loss of his Ferrari.

These days, the tone of business-based movies is significantly more realistic. In “The Company Men,’’ expected to open Oct. 29, Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, and Tommy Lee Jones play guys laid off from their corporate jobs as a result of the nation’s financial meltdown. Trailers for the Boston-made film track their struggles to find work, their distaste for the false cheeriness of support groups for the unemployed, and the cascading effect of joblessness on their families. The clips feel uncomfortably like the evening news.

The upside of bleak portrayals of the financial world and the insidious results of its bad behavior may be their effect on the young. While nobody likely picked a banking career based on Eddie Murphy’s thriving commodities trade or the affection Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey felt from the people of Bedford Falls, a generation of young people were evidently so enthralled by the excitement and trappings of the lush life depicted in the original “Wall Street’’ that they flooded business schools hoping to be the next Gordon Gekko (presumably without the going-to-jail part). Oliver Stone was said to be appalled that his cautionary tale had stoked the very greed he had been attempting to ridicule.

Now, however, early evidence indicates that the herd mentality driving our country’s best and brightest to Wharton and Harvard Business School, with the goal of landing jobs at Goldman or Morgan Stanley, may be waning. Wharton currently has 250 students in its Social Impact Club, and its new dean is vowing to restructure the curriculum around “cultivating a culture that is a force for good.’’ That ideal harkens back to the school’s founder, Benjamin Franklin — fittingly, the original Benjamin — who said he’d “rather be useful than rich.’’

Harvard, meanwhile, is looking to add more scientists and engineers to its MBA program, not just students with a hedge fund job in their cross hairs. And eBay founder Jeff Skoll told this year’s Stanford MBA graduating class to prioritize meaning over money. “Money without meaning can be an unfulfilling life,’’ he told them. “All of you entrepreneurial graduates here today absolutely can and should seek both.’’

That sounds suspiciously like the advice of Carl Fox (Martin Sheen) to his son Bud, near the end of the original “Wall Street,’’ as they drive to Bud’s sentencing hearing. When you come out, Papa Fox says, find a career “that lets you create, instead of living off the buying and selling of others.’’

Linda Tischler is a senior editor for Fast Company magazine. She can be reached at ltischler@fastcompany.com.

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