For such a deadly sin, greed can look pretty sexy on screen. Consider Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, all suspendered up in a shiny office towering above New York City, or Scarface’s Tony Montana, coked up and blasting away with his “leeetle friend.” When it pays dividends in copious amounts of cash, exotic sports cars and carnal pleasures, it’s easy to understand the lure of becoming a self-titled Master of the Universe.
Of course, there are certain downsides—enduring a perp walk (think of the weeping Bud Fox’s walk of shame in Wall Street) or ending up hacked apart in a Mexican ditch like Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Then there’s the problem of those pesky victims. The unemployed, suddenly pensionless or those literally left in the dark like the Californians at the mercy of manipulative power traders, all chronicled in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
Despite greed’s undeniably ugly collateral damage, there remains something beguiling in watching truly unrepentant, cocksure greed-heads at work and play. Greed for greed’s sake is a seductive vision. Just ask Wall Street director Oliver Stone or star Michael Douglas, who continue to receive shout-outs from fans who became traders after having been “inspired” by Gekko.
Gekko’s fan club is in for a treat this September, when Stone’s Wall Street sequel, Money Never Sleeps, premieres. The film’s release is a sign of the times; recent headlines are full of a new type of villain: The corporate officer in the role of Public Enemy No. 1. Where we once had Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly and Ma Barker we now have Bernie Madoff, Jeff Skilling and… Martha Stewart.
Greed is hot. It’s a popular, polarizing topic of “discussion” with Ayn Rand, free-market cultists in one corner and Michael Moore and his fellow windmill-tilters in the other. Thus, a review of memorable cinematic greed would seem to be a timely exercise. Here is a descent into a market freed from the burden of right and wrong, a seductive land of McMansions, kilos of blow, fast cars and plenty of liquidity.
THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948)
DIRECTED BY JOHN HUSTON
WARNER HOME VIDEO, $26.98
Let’s take Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) as our greed baseline. What better first look at blinding greed than to stare into Dobbs’ crazed eyes? Dust-coated, nervously twitching like a desperate squirrel, he scampers about, hiding his loot from co-prospectors Curtin (Tim Holt) and Howard (Walter Huston) in the wilds of Mexico. The bigger the pile of gold grows, the more feverish Dobbs becomes, ultimately talking to himself madly after gunning down an unarmed Curtin, who manages to somewhat temper his own gold lust.
However, greed demons rest just beneath Curtin’s reasonable demeanor. He pauses thoughtfully before rescuing Dobbs after a mine cave-in and acquiesces to shooting an interloper, an action trumped by the arrival of bandits, one of whom utters the immortal words: “We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges.” In the end, an unrepentant Dobbs lies in a ditch, his gold dust blown away.
DIRECTED BY ALBERT MAYSLES, DAVID MAYSLES, & CHARLOTTE ZWERIN
CRITERION COLLECTION, $39.95
The Maysles brothers’ inspired documentary about the travails of Bible salesmen is a sometimes uncomfortable window into salesmanship and the tyranny of the bottom line. There’s no literary Willy Loman here; this is the real world of brutal selling—in this case, Bibles. It’s all here: Motivational sales meetings, lead cards, door-knocking and pitches to nervous, broke housewives. At the heart of the film is Paul Brennan (a.k.a. “The Badger”), who has hit a dry patch.
Again and again, The Badger sits next to yet another customer on her couch. “Do you think you could afford a dollar a day?” he asks. Then the awkward response: “No.” They may be pushing the Good Book, but back in the hotel room at night, it’s all about sales numbers and the realization that the door-knocking begins again in the morning. “You’ve got to get out there and push, push, push, push, push,” says the Badger. “And once you’ve lost that push, you’ve had it.”
DIRECTED BY BRIAN DE PALMA
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS, $19.98
At his heart, Tony Montana is an entrepreneur who delivers a desirable product to his customers. For Montana, the keys to his success as a distributor are quite simple: “All I have in this world is my balls and my word, and I don’t break them for no one.” His reward? Mountains of coke, clogged money-counting machines and an alarmingly thin trophy wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.”
At the top of his game, Montana reclines, smoking a cigar and channel surfing in a marble bath the size of a swimming pool, the vastness of the space suggesting Charles Foster Kane’s final resting place, Xanadu. Of course, Montana’s demise is much louder than Kane’s final whisper.
TRADING PLACES (1983)
DIRECTED BY JOHN LANDIS
A tale of social Darwinism with the Duke brothers as puppet masters. A bet leads the Dukes to strip blueblood employee Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) of his position and replace him with hustler extraordinaire, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy). The Dukes’ privileged, gilt-paneled world ends on the trading floor, the result of an insider-trading gambit turned against them. The brothers embrace their inner covetousness. As the Dukes converse, Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) notes, “Mother always said you were greedy.” To which Mortimer (Don Ameche) replies, “She meant it as a compliment.”
WALL STREET (1987)
DIRECTED BY OLIVER STONE
20TH CENTURY FOX, $19.98
Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is the character who launched 1,000 stockbrokers and sold a brace of suspenders. He’s all style and sharp teeth, and his aggressively eloquent flights of fantasy on the wonders of wealth, coupled with naked amorality, still strike a chord. As Stone recently told the New York Times: “I can’t tell you how many young people have come up to me in these years and said, ‘I went to Wall Street because of that movie.’”
Gekko is an attractive devil, an investor who has moved beyond good and evil, an enticing model for aggressive, clever young men and women. Interestingly, Stone also wrote the screenplay for Scarface and has said that he considers Wall Street to be a continuation of that film. Stone clearly knows how to display the allure of greed; wavering acolyte Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) asks, “How much is enough?” It’s a question Gekko isn’t wired to consider; the nature of “enough” is a foreign concept for him.
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992)
DIRECTED BY JAMES FOLEY
Yes, Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon and company are great. But the real takeaway here is Alec Baldwin’s Blake, sent by Mitch and Murray to get the sales numbers up. To meet the goal, Blake delivers the mother of all come-to-Jesus speeches: “You want to know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes brass balls to sell real estate.” Cue brass balls dangling from Blake’s hands. Written specifically for Baldwin, the part was added to the movie by David Mamet, who wrote the screenplay and the play upon which the film is based.
Says Blake to his stunned audience: “Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. You want to work here? Close! You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you cocksucker? You can’t take this, how can you take the abuse you get on a sit? You don’t like it, leave.” It’s simple: “Always be closing.” Memo to Gekko: Blake would be a good staff addition.
ROGUE TRADER (1999)
DIRECTED BY JAMES DEARDEN
Told from the viewpoint of a real-life trader who brought a storied British bank down. While there is some debate about how much he personally profited from his trades, Nick Leeson’s story is as much about institutional greed as it is individual greed. Barings Bank makes the strategic decision to bring hungry young men into the fold; they are then unleashed with weak oversight. Leeson (Ewan McGregor) is set free upon the Singapore Stock Exchange. By the end, he’s using the bank’s money to take risks. He loses the gamble, the bank is out $1.5 billion… and then out of business. Leeson, who is now general manager of an Irish football club, did six years in a Singapore prison for the fiddle. The film is a prescient look at how internal operations can be compromised in the pursuit of profits.
BOILER ROOM (2000)
DIRECTED BY BEN YOUNGER
NEW LINE HOME VIDEO, $12.98
Glengarry Glen Ross meets Wall Street, complete with scary motivational speech and letting papa down subplot. That said, it’s an interesting view of a feral young men setup within an amoral landscape infrastructure. Protagonist Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi) shutters his gambling operation to join a decidedly shady trading company. He’s good at his job, which is to con marks into buying worthless stock. To celebrate the company’s success, the troops are bused into Manhattan for a big night out. The sight of this pack descending is unsettling—like swarming rats.
Another notable moment: The traders gather around an enormous television in a barren McMansion, taking turns to mimic their hero on the screen—Gekko.
ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM (2005)
DIRECTED BY ALEX GIBNEY
Built on a house of cards, Enron’s collapse set the standard for corporate bankruptcy. While executives pocketed hundreds of millions, the rank and file lost their jobs and pensions. Creative bookkeeping led to jail time, and a suicide.
Some of the most haunting footage includes audio of traders joking as they manipulate California’s power grid for Enron’s gain. As part of the state goes dark, a young man laughs, “We’re the future of Enron. We’re fucking making a half billion dollars for Enron. We’re definitely gonna retire by the time we’re 30.” The motto of the company was “Ask Why.” Greedy investors along for the ride simply chose not to ask “how.” Footage of handcuffed perps is a cathartic denouement.