Wall Street

09/03/2015

Outdated Icarus

Oliver Stone’s Wall Street can now seem, more than twenty five years after it was made, old-fashioned; too interested in ready father figures, given symbolism and easy representation. It is a film fascinated by money at a time when wealth was created out of egotism rather than psychosis, where Tom Wolfe could call his novel about the financial sector and New York, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and where the criminal and the financial were not inevitably interlinked. More recent films that explore the world of finance in fictional and non-fictional form focus on characters for whom greed isn’t only good, in Gordon Gecko’s formula here, but that whatever it takes to get it is okay too. Enron: The Smartest Guys in The RoomThe Corporation and Inside Job are documentaries, whileMargin CallArbitrage, Capital and The Wolf of Wall Street are fiction, and they are all films about greed, certainly, but also about dishonesty, criminality and behaviour bordering on the sociopathic. The Corporation likened its titular organizations to sociopaths, while Inside Job discussed the amoral emphasis on drugs and prostitution. As Inside Job director Charles Ferguson says in a self-penned Guardian piece, “It is no exaggeration to say that since the 1980s, much of the global financial sector has become criminalised, creating an industry culture that tolerates or even encourages systematic fraud.” What is interesting about the underrated sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleepsis one can see Stone determined to find moral reason in financial insanity. As Gecko says “Someone reminded me I once said “Greed is Good”. Now it seems its legal.” Stone presents Gecko in the follow-up as an ambivalent figure bested by the out-and-out avarice and egotism of  an old-time rival played by Josh Brolin. Yet Brolin remains in a supporting role even if on Wall Street he would be absolutely centre stage.

Our point of contrast isn’t going to be with the sequel, but with Martin Scorsese’s brilliantly dubious zeitgeist film The Wolf of Wall Street, set in the years after Stone’s film and showing a period of far greater deregulation. The film’s importance rests on the way it fits into Scorsese’s ongoing interest in the ever increasing power and wealth of gangster culture. Wall Street might show morally compromised characters, but it would be hard to imagine them as gangsters. Yet if Scorsese started at the bottom with Mean Streets, working his way up in GoodFellas and Casino, now he suggests that the gangster mentality isn’t wasting its time with drug deals, gambling and laundered money, it has entered the virtual realm where there is little need for either money or violence as ready tangibles. Now you can sock it to people with nary a blow to the head or the body. This is like a variation of Pierre Bourdieu’s symbolic violence, or soft power, where sticks and stones might break your bones but abstractions can equally hurt you. There might be one vicious beating in The Wolf of Wall Street, but the abuses in the film are chiefly offscreen: the many people scammed by buying shares in worthless companies. Early in the film, as Leonardo Di Caprio’s central character insists to a potential buyer that the company he is selling him is going places, we cut to a shed in New Jersey: the reality sharing almost no common denominator with the fiction Di Caprio spins.

It has been said that The Wolf of Wall Street pays too little heed to those scammed. Harry Thomas in MySA reckons: “the movie is about real criminals who did real damage to real victims, who don’t get much mention. I seriously doubt that’s of any concern to anyone who made this film. Can a film presented as entertainment be separated from what happened to the real victims of the subject’s excess?” Yet does this say more about a certain virtualisation than inconsideration: that Scorsese wanted to show a point of view that has no concern for the victims because they function as off screen space rather than on screen horror? There was little concern for the victims in some moments in GoodFellasand Casino either, but the lack of feeling still insisted on presence as the victims were terribly brutalised. Yet here there is no need to show the victim because there is no direct contact with them. The lack of consideration to the victim shown in the gangster films is extended to their very absence in The Wolf of Wall Street.

In this sense Wall Street is a very moral film, and perhaps may seem even antedeluvian in its plotting and its symbolic solemnity. The victim is so close to home that it happens to be the company of central character Bud Fox’s father. Carl Fox (Martin Sheen) doesn’t own BlueStarAirlines; he’s actually a blue collar maintenance foreman and union president: a man who knows how to do the work and look after the interests of others also. Bud (Charlie Sheen) wants more than his father has settled for and works as junior stockbroker on Wall Street with the intention of reaching for the skies and doing it initially with the aid of using insider information on BlueStar. He then later proposes that his enormously wealthy mentor Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas) buy up the company, with Gecko putting Bud in charge of the airline. Bud’s father is utterly against the idea thinking his son has no experience running such a company, while Gecko doesn’t care if he knows how to run an airline or not. He just wants to buy up the firm and asset strip it, taking advantage of the pension pot that can be used as ready cash. Bud is presented here as both greedy and naive, contrary character traits perhaps in the world of Wall Street, but very useful assets in Hollywood narrative where a character has to learn a few life lessons. When Bud discovers Gecko’s plan, he turns against him, becoming selfless and wise, and does a deal with Gecko’s numero uno nemesis Sir Lawrence Wildman (Terence Stamp). Bud manipulates the shares so that the price initially rises and Gecko pays above the odds, and then manipulates them down again so that Gecko eventually sells at a huge loss, thus allowing Wildman to buy them up cheaply and to allow Bluestar to run as the company it is and that Carl has always worked for.

Made partly in homage to his father, a Wall Street stockbroker during the thirties recession, Oliver Stone’s film has no less than three father figures: Carl, Sir Lawrence and Gecko, a film so top heavy with the masculine the director and others have accepted that it was hopelessly imbalanced. “The two female characters were never that developed…” Michael Douglas noted. “My wife’s part was just sort of there, and [Bud’s girlfriend] Daryl’s [Daryl Hannah) part was really not well developed.”  (Stone – The Controversies, Excesses and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker). Concerning the casting of Sean Young as Douglas’s wife, Stone said:  “she was probably resentful about playing the smaller role; but in that case she shouldn’t have taken it.” Elsewhere in the book he admits though that “she was dead right. In her Cassandra-like madness she had made the point clearly that I should have switched her to the larger role and made Daryl the wife of Michael Douglas.” It would have given the film a bit more feminine force, with Young an actress capable of asserting herself in a part much more keenly than Hannah.

Yet the masculine top-heaviness has been a feature in much of Stone’s work, from Platoonto Any Given Sunday, and in Wall Street it plays into the choices available in choosing one’s ethos according to the role models present. Talking of Stone’s relationship with his dad, cameraman Robert Richardson says, in the book, “he had a great deal of respect for his father”, and the film’s form develops out of the function of the various father figures. There is the scene early on where Bud sits having a beer with his father and Carl is blue-collar old-fashioned as he calls pasta spaghetti, announces he is out of his time, and offers the solecism don’t for doesn’t. Filmed mainly in shot/counter-shot, the sequence emphasises Bud’s need to be his own man as his father lectures and cajoles him. Bud’s got bags under his eyes and debts he can’t pay off and Carl says he told him not to get into finance: he could have been a doctor or a lawyer. By the end of the scene though the tone has changed, with Dad willing to lend his son three hundred dollars till the end of the month, and Carl reminiscing about Bud when he was young. Education might have created a social divide but the love is still there.

If Carl is the father he is looking at in the rear view mirror of his social ambitions, Gordon Gecko is the man in front that Bud’s determined to tailgate. Gecko is someone who knows how to make money more than friends, and while the scene between Carl and Bud shows Carl is admired and liked by everyone at work, Gecko seeks deference more than respect; demands authority more than he expects loyalty. Like Carl he is also from a humble background, but will only return to it in moments of potential humiliation, evident later in an exchange been Sir Lawrence and Gordon in Gecko’s home. Blue collar life is Carl’s permaculture; for Gecko the environment from which he sprang and to which he feels no obligation. Where Carl sees himself as part of an ongoing working class world of sustainability, Gecko cheerfully rapes whatever social milieu in which he finds himself. When Bud first meets Gecko, Stone plays up the contrast with the earlier scene. Both Bud and Gordon have their hair slicked back rather than flopping into their faces as in the earlier moment with Bud and his dad; the body language is much more dynamic with both men sometimes sitting down, sometimes on their feet. The camera is rarely still, choosing to circle round the characters as they’re often on the move. When Bud talks about BlueStar airlines the camera doesn’t only keep moving, it also subtly focus pulls so that the background looks unsteady. Here is a world of great instability at odds with the earlier sequence of solidity, and the movements of bodies and the constantly roving camera reflect this. If Gecko is the new father figure, he is the sun god to Carl’s down to earth dad. Bud is Icarus rising.

If we earlier suggested that The Wolf of Wall Street was interested in symbolic violence as Scorsese leaves behind the physically aggressive milieu for a no less ruthless one based on doing people over indirectly, Stone’s film is interested in symbolism, too, but of a more traditional variety. Bourdieu is talking about the symbolic as an every day utilisation of power; about how even people without it nevertheless often know their place within it and feel it as natural. As Bourdieu says: “Despite this potential plurality of possible structuring – what Weber called the Vielseitigkeit of the given – it remains that a social world presents itself as a highly structured reality.” (‘Social Space and Symbolic Power’) What Scorsese shows is Di Caprio as a man who has mastered the confidence of the elite to prey upon the poor. Stone, however, is interested in drawing upon a different symbolism, deep myth, to give shape and structure to his narrative. This is Bud as Faust to Gecko’s Mephistopheles and the scene where they first meet is giddy with the high of ambition. Any social demarcations are secondary to symbolic ones as Stone tells a moral tale about a young man rejecting his father’s values to make his way in the world and doing so with the aid of a surrogate parent. But it is not the surrogacy of new wealth that he needs through Gecko, but old wealth through Sir Lawrence. There are no such father figures in Scorsese’s film, the closest happens to be Matthew McConaughey’s coke-head crack-pot who talks with the speed of a Gatling gun, telling Di Caprio exactly how it is before promptly disappearing from the film.

It’s as if the wolf of Wall Street has replaced the (Bud) Fox of Wall Street and has swallowed the lizard (the Gecko) whole. What interests Scorsese is a certain pace of existence that outstrips moral capacity, and he marvellously matches the reckless rapidity of the characters with a cinematic turbo thrust. Stone instead wants to present a morality tale that will never become any faster than one’s capacity to absorb the film’s moral content. Here the film seems consistent with most movies on the financial industry fact and fiction (no matter their increasing interest in criminality and psychosis at the top) which sees a failure of ethos and couches the events it portrays within this context. Stone makes clear that Gecko is a lizard in his very nomenclature and while Bud is seduced by Gecko’s world, we are less inclined to be enamoured. If Stone had shown Carl to be more bone-headed, if Carl had refused to lend Bud the money and Stone eschewed the music at the end of the scene indicative of a close bond between father and son, then perhaps Gecko could have seduced us as well as Bud.

But Stone is a much more portentous director than Scorsese, someone who often wants to indicate the moral weight of our lives over the adrenaline buzz of our existence. Whether it is Sheen’s character Taylor in Platoon or Tom Cruise’s Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, or Bud here, these are characters on learning curves as moral arcs: young men taught the values of the world through the mistakes they or others are making around them. Indeed part of Stone’s moral impetus is to say that the individual’s failings are part of a broader, if not quite encompassing, moral malaise in American society. In Salvador, James Wood is morally scuzzy but he is a reflection of American policy in the region rather than an exception to it, just as Kovic might be the naive young man going off to fight in Vietnam, but he is also a product of a jingoistic US of A. Bud can only fall into the moral mire because of financial irregularities being practised on a broader scale. When Gecko later in the film gives his lecture insisting that greed is good, it is a speech met with approval partly because of how he couches it. This is the new America; different from the old, and he isn’t the isolated man on the make, but the visionary capable of anticipating America’s future.

Indeed had the film shown greater interest in Gecko as a force in the financial world rather than as a villain, we might look back on it and see a film anticipating the sociopathic and psychotic tendencies the more recent works have proposed. In Margin Call the financial industry becomes a humanly irrational universe, with the algorithms so complex that only the very occasional genius can make sense of the numbers. When head man Jeremy Irons comes in he accepts that any explanation has to be a horrible over-simplification because he hasn’t really got a head for figures, no matter if he happens to be running a financial corporation. In Arbitrage, financial feneigling and criminal behaviour meet when Richard Gere’s multi-millionaire hedge-fund manager facing liquidity problems, has an accident and tries to set another man up to take the fall as he determines to shift responsibility, like money, from one place to another. If in Wall Street Bud knows not what he does chiefly because he is young and naive, in Margin Call and Arbitrage various characters in the former, and Gere in the latter, no not what they do because they are as greedy as Gecko but also either ignorant or breathtakingly selfish more than callow. The documentaries indicate as well that nobody quite knows what they are doing, or are in blissful bad faith as they cannot or will not see the compromises they have made. At one moment in Inside Job an economist lecturer is asked whether he sees that there was anything wrong with him lecturing on economics at Ivy league colleges whilst at the same time working for companies that created an undeniable bias in his views. He squirms uncomfortably and gets annoyed: as if he didn’t offer to do the interview to be asked tough questions.

Even if, like Stone’s film, the more recent works with the exception of The Wolf of Wall Street insist on telling stories, fact and fictional, within the parameters of moral coordinates, they nevertheless indicate much more the irrational, psychotic and sociopathic, and where the economic environment easily absorbs the social fabric even to the detriment of sense. Whatever we think of Gecko’s assumption that greed is good, he presents it as a rational discourse from a certain point of view, and it is only bad because it is selfish and self-serving. What he wants to do to BlueStar airlines is entirely comprehensible even if we find it disreputable: he intends to lie to get what he wants, saying to the workers and unions that of course he intends to keep the company going, only to tell Bud he has no interest in doing so and will strip it bare for financial profit. Bud bails out because he finally sees through Gecko to the reptile underneath, but there is nothing in Gecko’s approach that is especially unhinged no matter if the way he functions is often underhand and even illegal. But in the more recent films on finance there is the absurd as the real and the virtual clash.

It is evident in McConaughey’s claims in The Wolf of Wall Street when he discusses investors’ money: the point isn’t to make money for one’s clients, but to take real money they give and keep it in the virtual sphere. This means that it keeps making money not for the customer but for the stock broker, who can cream off real profit from the shares when they go up, but who cares little about what happens when the shares go down. As he talks furiously we feel he is in the virtual sphere as well. It is also there in the shed in New Jersey as Di Caprio sells people the fantasy, while in Margin Call hardly anybody can understand the figures that are bringing a huge corporation down. It is evident in the latter film in the corporate acceptance that the company will sell the shares off as quickly as possible before people realize how useless the stock happens to be. Wall Street is a film that exists in the real world with tangible assets and tangible moral quandaries; the more recent works acknowledge much more that international finance is a fantasy industry where people needn’t only be vain and greedy like Gecko, but capable of living in a parallel universe where virtual exchange can nevertheless lead to immense personal gain in the form of Porsches, planes and yachts, but where the pain is invisibly felt across the globe by the many at the mercy of world finance.

When one returns to Wall Street today we do so not to understand an aspect of the financial world and the nature of its milieu and the means and methods of the transactions, but as a return to the ‘real’ world, and where symbolism takes on the form of the ancient myth we have already invoked rather than the symbolically contemporary. In other words where Stone can draw on Mephistopheles and Icarus, on the father figure as the choice between good (Carl), evil (Gecko) or the subtly omnipotent (Sir Lawrence), perhaps the symbolism required now to understand the world Wall Street explores isn’t mythological but algorithmic: the symbols not of ancient wisdom but of modern technology. Whether they happen to be used for financial transactions, police procedurals (cops targeting neighbourhoods based on incidences of violence pumped into a computer) or Hollywood scripts based on the mean of successful films of the past, the symbolic structures important to our lives are troublesomely computational more than they’re historically cultural.

Of course not all the recent films on finance explore in detail the complexity of the financial transactions. Both Margin Call and The Wolf of Wall Street accept that if the maths is too complicated for most people in the industry then there is not much chance of the viewer understanding them either. Margin Call illustrates the serpentine nature of the financial through the traders trying to make sense of information that is beyond their ken, while in The Wolf of Wall Street, Di Caprio starts to explain what he does to the audience only to tell we the viewers that it needn’t really interest us. What he wants to show us instead is the good life that comes out of the dubious: the drink, drugs, the sex; the cars, the houses, the yachts. If in  Wall Street the transactional and the material are in balance, in The Wolf of Wall Street the transactions have become so complicated, and the good life so hyperbolized, that the representational pull is away from the financially abstract and towards the materially concrete. The documentaries are more given to explore the financially logistical, but they cannot avoid the labyrinthine in the process of doing so. They yearn for the moral arc but the transactive complexity of events is such, that it means that we are often inclined to judge the various figures involved on the basis of their sweaty reactions and their stumbling self-justifications more than by comprehending the complex actions they were involved in. This is baroque villainy, where we can’t always follow the plot but we can assume that even if we don’t know exactly what somebody has done wrong, wrong has undeniably been done. During Inside Job and Enron there are interviews in front of public committees, and we watch as various high level employees twitch and blink while trying  to answer, or avoid answering, difficult questions. We might not understand the specifics, but we understand the evasiveness of body language when we see it.

If Wall Street tries to balance the good life with the bad deeds, Enron and Inside Job focus on the latter, while The Wolf of Wall Street concentrates on the former. Yet we find Wall Street old-fashioned partly because it attends in equal measure to the material accoutrements and the financially transactive, as if the one is as explicable as the other. Thus near the end of Wall Street Fox’s plan to outwit Gecko as he pushes up the share price before Gecko buys BlueStar, and pushes the prices down again afterwards so that Sir Lawrence buys him out on the cheap, has the sort of narrative twists and turns of a film noir or a sting film, it is as if finance can be narratively contained by plot devices used elsewhere, just as the expenditure of this money can be represented equally easily. But such is the increase in wealth and the increase in complexity of the financial markets, that a pressing question for film now is how they should be shown. Inside Job doesn’t just talk about a plane a CEO possesses but how many of them the company owns, and so for a film to do justice to this affluence the image becomes not envious but positively absurd, unreal. The fleet of limousines becomes a fleet of airplanes, and how does one fill a driveway with 747s? The person no longer owns a plane; he needs to own an airport. A swimming pool, a tennis court, a Rolls Royce become metonymically inadequate. It is like a variation on Dr Evil’s rather pathetic request in the Austin Powers film where he asks for $1 million dollars at a time when, in Boris Johnson’s words (referring to his mere £250,000 a year Telegraph column) such a sum would be “chicken feed”.

Thus we have two modes of hyperbole available: one towards the narratively baroque as the transference of money passes through so many hands that the paper trail can’t even be followed by those initiating the transactions, perhaps would prefer not to be. When banks were suspicious that Bernie Madoff (whose Ponzi scheme led to a hundred and fifty year prison sentence) was pulling off a scam, Inside Job‘s director Charles Ferguson notes in his Guardian article that banks were told to take a close look at Madoff’s transactions, but “not a single bank that had suspicions about Madoff made such a call.” The other is representational: how do you suggest wealth so enormous that the images of immense prosperity (from Catherine Tremell’s lifestyle in Basic Instinct, for example, to Howard Hughes’s in The Aviator) can seem paltry? Documentaries like Enron and Inside Job indicate the narratively elaborate nature of financial transactions no matter if they are non-fictional works, while The Wolf of Wall Street show the exorbitant luxury by suggesting there is no end to the accumulation; only limits to the body as it tries to have it all.

Hence we find ourselves watching Wall Street today not as a film that astounds us by a greed is good ethos for which it became famous, but for the ready containment of its rejection through narrative convention, and through showing representational wealth that doesn’t now seem especially excessive. The film even concludes on the criminal, with Bud Fox arrested for his insider trading, then wearing a wire as he meets Gecko in the park while Gordon indicts himself on tape. Of course The Wolf of Wall Street concludes similarly. But where one senses in Wall Street the world returns to normal after the relative excesses we have seen, The Wolf of Wall Street has shown such outlandish wealth, and that Di Caprio’s character is a product of norms rather than exceptions (while Wall Street has, overall,  shown the opposite) that the excesses more generally can’t be curbed by a prison sentence.

One of the pressing questions concerning post-modernism has been the imaginary’s capacity to outstrip the real: the mediated image imposing itself upon the actual event and that resulted in Jean Baudrillard’s famous claim that The Gulf War Didn’t Take Place in his book of that name. Baudrillard of course didn’t believe there wasn’t a gulf war at the beginning of the nineties; merely that it was an event so carefully controlled and mediated that what mattered was its representation to the detriment of the unpleasant reality. This was part of the society of the spectacle as Guy Debord might have defined it: the Los Angeles Olympics, the French bicentenary celebrations, the wedding of Charles and Diana. This is consistent with post-modernism as stage-managed reality. But what happens when the event goes beyond our capacity to represent it? This is no longer the problem of post-modernism as an epistemological issue of truth, but a hyper-modern realization that the representational system can’t quite capture the complexity of the event, or, its flipside, where the reality is caught ad hoc, as we find with images from Iraq seen on people’s phones, or images from 9/11 caught on people’s cameras. If writers like Baudrillard and Debord saw the dangers of reality being commodified by media power, this problem of representation as too slippery (as in the case of finance), or too digitally available (anyone can film an event now) generates a different type of crisis in the image.

One wouldn’t want to suggest the newer films are dealing especially with this problem and generating a new relationship with the image as a consequence, but if we find Wall Streettouchingly dated it resides in taking the world of finance and believing it can deal with it in several manageable ways that now seem too easy. Firstly in the culturally symbolic over the algorithmic; secondly in the belief that the complexity of old-style storytelling can do justice to the complexity of high finance; thirdly in representing great wealth as plausible rather than absurd; and fourthly by indicating that a moral can be wrestled from the subject without complication. Of course many will claim watching any film from the past inevitably leads us to feel that the film is old-fashioned, but this is often the case only in the narrowest sense: that technologies have moved on, actors have passed away and the pro-filmic realities explored have since been transformed. Yet often films escape such obsolescence in the fruitfulness of their themes and the richness of their exploration: watching It’s a Wonderful Life shortly after the 2008 crash felt like watching a revolutionary work, as it indicated the importance of collective power and a faith in one’s fellow man. It served as an antidote to the ethos so prevalent in homo economicus which suggests the individual is what matters and scepticism towards others what counts. It didn’t feel old-fashioned; more a contrary approach that can give us hope against the onslaught of selfish values passing themselves off as natural. Here was a film made just after WWII that indicated the opposite: that co-feeling was much more fundamental. One offers it as an example simply to insist that Wall Street is not dated because it is old; more that it works off a set of assumptions both representational and ethical that today feels quaint.

Thus the film suggests that Gordon Gecko is anomalous rather than normative as Stone shows us numerous stockbrokers in Bud’s office as hard-working people playing it straight, and gives us three father figures of which only one happens to be corrupting. Bud is here surrounded by moral values, and though we wouldn’t want to claim that high finance is an inevitably corrupting influence, the crash indicated more than the occasional preacher of a greed is good ethos. It suggested not only that greed was good, but that greed was miraculous. The brokers weren’t too far removed from Jesus Christ but with an inverted generosity: they weren’t turning water into wine and sharing loaves and fishes; traders were turning junk bonds into personal fortunes. When Hal Holbrook’s seasoned stock broker (and all but a fourth father figure here) talks about playing it straight, he presents stock exchange personnel as a barrel of apples with the rotten ones easily removed. What Wall Street adds up to is not a film helping us to understand a complex world of financial transactions and the behaviourally new (towards an ethnography of a world of wealth), but a determined attempt to contain the world of finance within traditional ethical systems that leaves us in little doubt where we stand morally, but not always so sure that we understand the milieu in which we now find ourselves.

If we happen to be living in a hypermodern age then of course this doesn’t mean that all art works preceding it need somehow to anticipate it. That isn’t our point. It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t at all predict the hypermodern, but it does manage to propose values that counter in meaningful ways the ethos of crisis capitalism, where money is a virtual symbol dictated by algorithmic complexities which cannot help but arrive at the unstable. Is it not partly about predicting on the basis of complex equations what stocks will rise and which will fall? It’s a Wonderful Life asks what are the alternatives to such crisis capitalism, and it is a valid one at a time where the choice is between risky investment or keeping your money under the bed because the interest rate is so low there is little point leaving it in the bank. In Frank Capra’s film, the townspeople go to central character, banker George Bailey, and put their money into his bank as if aware of Marx’s maxim: from each according to their needs and each according to their abilities. Those with savings invest; those needing to borrow have the means made available to do so, and the money circulates directly within a small monetary sphere. This is neither corporate nor crisis capitalism, but communal capitalism. Watching It’s a Wonderful Life might in some ways feel like one is viewing a Hollywood fantasy, but it can also appear more like real life than The Wolf of Wall Street’s negative equivalent, which could be called it’s a wonderful life too, but only for its central character and his friends. The fictional wealth generated in the latter, contrasts with the tangible wealth in the former – evident in the cash the townsfolk deposit.

It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wolf of Wall Street are flipside films that nevertheless give us a sense of community capitalism at one end and crisis capitalism at the other. One is rooted in the real and the other exploring the hyperbolized, but they both seem films that should be put in the time capsule long before Wall Street. The older film because it shows capitalism segueing into communism and the importance of the communal and tangible, and the latter because it exemplifies a certain hyper-modern approach to capitalism that shows money and the individual utterly out of control. Wall Street is a film of only minor importance as it allows us to speculate less over the failure of high finance, than the failure of the film to capture its nature or go deeply enough into showing alternatives. All the father figures and symbolism cannot quite discover pressing first principles.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Wall Street

Outdated Icarus

Oliver Stone's Wall Street can now seem, more than twenty five years after it was made, old-fashioned; too interested in ready father figures, given symbolism and easy representation. It is a film fascinated by money at a time when wealth was created out of egotism rather than psychosis, where Tom Wolfe could call his novel about the financial sector and New York, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and where the criminal and the financial were not inevitably interlinked. More recent films that explore the world of finance in fictional and non-fictional form focus on characters for whom greed isn't only good, in Gordon Gecko's formula here, but that whatever it takes to get it is okay too. Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room, The Corporation and Inside Job are documentaries, whileMargin Call, Arbitrage, Capital and The Wolf of Wall Street are fiction, and they are all films about greed, certainly, but also about dishonesty, criminality and behaviour bordering on the sociopathic. The Corporation likened its titular organizations to sociopaths, while Inside Job discussed the amoral emphasis on drugs and prostitution. As Inside Job director Charles Ferguson says in a self-penned Guardian piece, "It is no exaggeration to say that since the 1980s, much of the global financial sector has become criminalised, creating an industry culture that tolerates or even encourages systematic fraud." What is interesting about the underrated sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleepsis one can see Stone determined to find moral reason in financial insanity. As Gecko says "Someone reminded me I once said "Greed is Good". Now it seems its legal." Stone presents Gecko in the follow-up as an ambivalent figure bested by the out-and-out avarice and egotism of an old-time rival played by Josh Brolin. Yet Brolin remains in a supporting role even if on Wall Street he would be absolutely centre stage.

Our point of contrast isn't going to be with the sequel, but with Martin Scorsese's brilliantly dubious zeitgeist film The Wolf of Wall Street, set in the years after Stone's film and showing a period of far greater deregulation. The film's importance rests on the way it fits into Scorsese's ongoing interest in the ever increasing power and wealth of gangster culture. Wall Street might show morally compromised characters, but it would be hard to imagine them as gangsters. Yet if Scorsese started at the bottom with Mean Streets, working his way up in GoodFellas and Casino, now he suggests that the gangster mentality isn't wasting its time with drug deals, gambling and laundered money, it has entered the virtual realm where there is little need for either money or violence as ready tangibles. Now you can sock it to people with nary a blow to the head or the body. This is like a variation of Pierre Bourdieu's symbolic violence, or soft power, where sticks and stones might break your bones but abstractions can equally hurt you. There might be one vicious beating in The Wolf of Wall Street, but the abuses in the film are chiefly offscreen: the many people scammed by buying shares in worthless companies. Early in the film, as Leonardo Di Caprio's central character insists to a potential buyer that the company he is selling him is going places, we cut to a shed in New Jersey: the reality sharing almost no common denominator with the fiction Di Caprio spins.

It has been said that The Wolf of Wall Street pays too little heed to those scammed. Harry Thomas in MySA reckons: "the movie is about real criminals who did real damage to real victims, who don't get much mention. I seriously doubt that's of any concern to anyone who made this film. Can a film presented as entertainment be separated from what happened to the real victims of the subject's excess?" Yet does this say more about a certain virtualisation than inconsideration: that Scorsese wanted to show a point of view that has no concern for the victims because they function as off screen space rather than on screen horror? There was little concern for the victims in some moments in GoodFellasand Casino either, but the lack of feeling still insisted on presence as the victims were terribly brutalised. Yet here there is no need to show the victim because there is no direct contact with them. The lack of consideration to the victim shown in the gangster films is extended to their very absence in The Wolf of Wall Street.

In this sense Wall Street is a very moral film, and perhaps may seem even antedeluvian in its plotting and its symbolic solemnity. The victim is so close to home that it happens to be the company of central character Bud Fox's father. Carl Fox (Martin Sheen) doesn't own BlueStarAirlines; he's actually a blue collar maintenance foreman and union president: a man who knows how to do the work and look after the interests of others also. Bud (Charlie Sheen) wants more than his father has settled for and works as junior stockbroker on Wall Street with the intention of reaching for the skies and doing it initially with the aid of using insider information on BlueStar. He then later proposes that his enormously wealthy mentor Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas) buy up the company, with Gecko putting Bud in charge of the airline. Bud's father is utterly against the idea thinking his son has no experience running such a company, while Gecko doesn't care if he knows how to run an airline or not. He just wants to buy up the firm and asset strip it, taking advantage of the pension pot that can be used as ready cash. Bud is presented here as both greedy and naive, contrary character traits perhaps in the world of Wall Street, but very useful assets in Hollywood narrative where a character has to learn a few life lessons. When Bud discovers Gecko's plan, he turns against him, becoming selfless and wise, and does a deal with Gecko's numero uno nemesis Sir Lawrence Wildman (Terence Stamp). Bud manipulates the shares so that the price initially rises and Gecko pays above the odds, and then manipulates them down again so that Gecko eventually sells at a huge loss, thus allowing Wildman to buy them up cheaply and to allow Bluestar to run as the company it is and that Carl has always worked for.

Made partly in homage to his father, a Wall Street stockbroker during the thirties recession, Oliver Stone's film has no less than three father figures: Carl, Sir Lawrence and Gecko, a film so top heavy with the masculine the director and others have accepted that it was hopelessly imbalanced. "The two female characters were never that developed..." Michael Douglas noted. "My wife's part was just sort of there, and [Bud's girlfriend] Daryl's [Daryl Hannah) part was really not well developed." (Stone - The Controversies, Excesses and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker). Concerning the casting of Sean Young as Douglas's wife, Stone said: "she was probably resentful about playing the smaller role; but in that case she shouldn't have taken it." Elsewhere in the book he admits though that "she was dead right. In her Cassandra-like madness she had made the point clearly that I should have switched her to the larger role and made Daryl the wife of Michael Douglas." It would have given the film a bit more feminine force, with Young an actress capable of asserting herself in a part much more keenly than Hannah.

Yet the masculine top-heaviness has been a feature in much of Stone's work, from Platoonto Any Given Sunday, and in Wall Street it plays into the choices available in choosing one's ethos according to the role models present. Talking of Stone's relationship with his dad, cameraman Robert Richardson says, in the book, "he had a great deal of respect for his father", and the film's form develops out of the function of the various father figures. There is the scene early on where Bud sits having a beer with his father and Carl is blue-collar old-fashioned as he calls pasta spaghetti, announces he is out of his time, and offers the solecism don't for doesn't. Filmed mainly in shot/counter-shot, the sequence emphasises Bud's need to be his own man as his father lectures and cajoles him. Bud's got bags under his eyes and debts he can't pay off and Carl says he told him not to get into finance: he could have been a doctor or a lawyer. By the end of the scene though the tone has changed, with Dad willing to lend his son three hundred dollars till the end of the month, and Carl reminiscing about Bud when he was young. Education might have created a social divide but the love is still there.

If Carl is the father he is looking at in the rear view mirror of his social ambitions, Gordon Gecko is the man in front that Bud's determined to tailgate. Gecko is someone who knows how to make money more than friends, and while the scene between Carl and Bud shows Carl is admired and liked by everyone at work, Gecko seeks deference more than respect; demands authority more than he expects loyalty. Like Carl he is also from a humble background, but will only return to it in moments of potential humiliation, evident later in an exchange been Sir Lawrence and Gordon in Gecko's home. Blue collar life is Carl's permaculture; for Gecko the environment from which he sprang and to which he feels no obligation. Where Carl sees himself as part of an ongoing working class world of sustainability, Gecko cheerfully rapes whatever social milieu in which he finds himself. When Bud first meets Gecko, Stone plays up the contrast with the earlier scene. Both Bud and Gordon have their hair slicked back rather than flopping into their faces as in the earlier moment with Bud and his dad; the body language is much more dynamic with both men sometimes sitting down, sometimes on their feet. The camera is rarely still, choosing to circle round the characters as they're often on the move. When Bud talks about BlueStar airlines the camera doesn't only keep moving, it also subtly focus pulls so that the background looks unsteady. Here is a world of great instability at odds with the earlier sequence of solidity, and the movements of bodies and the constantly roving camera reflect this. If Gecko is the new father figure, he is the sun god to Carl's down to earth dad. Bud is Icarus rising.

If we earlier suggested that The Wolf of Wall Street was interested in symbolic violence as Scorsese leaves behind the physically aggressive milieu for a no less ruthless one based on doing people over indirectly, Stone's film is interested in symbolism, too, but of a more traditional variety. Bourdieu is talking about the symbolic as an every day utilisation of power; about how even people without it nevertheless often know their place within it and feel it as natural. As Bourdieu says: "Despite this potential plurality of possible structuring - what Weber called the Vielseitigkeit of the given - it remains that a social world presents itself as a highly structured reality." ('Social Space and Symbolic Power') What Scorsese shows is Di Caprio as a man who has mastered the confidence of the elite to prey upon the poor. Stone, however, is interested in drawing upon a different symbolism, deep myth, to give shape and structure to his narrative. This is Bud as Faust to Gecko's Mephistopheles and the scene where they first meet is giddy with the high of ambition. Any social demarcations are secondary to symbolic ones as Stone tells a moral tale about a young man rejecting his father's values to make his way in the world and doing so with the aid of a surrogate parent. But it is not the surrogacy of new wealth that he needs through Gecko, but old wealth through Sir Lawrence. There are no such father figures in Scorsese's film, the closest happens to be Matthew McConaughey's coke-head crack-pot who talks with the speed of a Gatling gun, telling Di Caprio exactly how it is before promptly disappearing from the film.

It's as if the wolf of Wall Street has replaced the (Bud) Fox of Wall Street and has swallowed the lizard (the Gecko) whole. What interests Scorsese is a certain pace of existence that outstrips moral capacity, and he marvellously matches the reckless rapidity of the characters with a cinematic turbo thrust. Stone instead wants to present a morality tale that will never become any faster than one's capacity to absorb the film's moral content. Here the film seems consistent with most movies on the financial industry fact and fiction (no matter their increasing interest in criminality and psychosis at the top) which sees a failure of ethos and couches the events it portrays within this context. Stone makes clear that Gecko is a lizard in his very nomenclature and while Bud is seduced by Gecko's world, we are less inclined to be enamoured. If Stone had shown Carl to be more bone-headed, if Carl had refused to lend Bud the money and Stone eschewed the music at the end of the scene indicative of a close bond between father and son, then perhaps Gecko could have seduced us as well as Bud.

But Stone is a much more portentous director than Scorsese, someone who often wants to indicate the moral weight of our lives over the adrenaline buzz of our existence. Whether it is Sheen's character Taylor in Platoon or Tom Cruise's Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, or Bud here, these are characters on learning curves as moral arcs: young men taught the values of the world through the mistakes they or others are making around them. Indeed part of Stone's moral impetus is to say that the individual's failings are part of a broader, if not quite encompassing, moral malaise in American society. In Salvador, James Wood is morally scuzzy but he is a reflection of American policy in the region rather than an exception to it, just as Kovic might be the naive young man going off to fight in Vietnam, but he is also a product of a jingoistic US of A. Bud can only fall into the moral mire because of financial irregularities being practised on a broader scale. When Gecko later in the film gives his lecture insisting that greed is good, it is a speech met with approval partly because of how he couches it. This is the new America; different from the old, and he isn't the isolated man on the make, but the visionary capable of anticipating America's future.

Indeed had the film shown greater interest in Gecko as a force in the financial world rather than as a villain, we might look back on it and see a film anticipating the sociopathic and psychotic tendencies the more recent works have proposed. In Margin Call the financial industry becomes a humanly irrational universe, with the algorithms so complex that only the very occasional genius can make sense of the numbers. When head man Jeremy Irons comes in he accepts that any explanation has to be a horrible over-simplification because he hasn't really got a head for figures, no matter if he happens to be running a financial corporation. In Arbitrage, financial feneigling and criminal behaviour meet when Richard Gere's multi-millionaire hedge-fund manager facing liquidity problems, has an accident and tries to set another man up to take the fall as he determines to shift responsibility, like money, from one place to another. If in Wall Street Bud knows not what he does chiefly because he is young and naive, in Margin Call and Arbitrage various characters in the former, and Gere in the latter, no not what they do because they are as greedy as Gecko but also either ignorant or breathtakingly selfish more than callow. The documentaries indicate as well that nobody quite knows what they are doing, or are in blissful bad faith as they cannot or will not see the compromises they have made. At one moment in Inside Job an economist lecturer is asked whether he sees that there was anything wrong with him lecturing on economics at Ivy league colleges whilst at the same time working for companies that created an undeniable bias in his views. He squirms uncomfortably and gets annoyed: as if he didn't offer to do the interview to be asked tough questions.

Even if, like Stone's film, the more recent works with the exception of The Wolf of Wall Street insist on telling stories, fact and fictional, within the parameters of moral coordinates, they nevertheless indicate much more the irrational, psychotic and sociopathic, and where the economic environment easily absorbs the social fabric even to the detriment of sense. Whatever we think of Gecko's assumption that greed is good, he presents it as a rational discourse from a certain point of view, and it is only bad because it is selfish and self-serving. What he wants to do to BlueStar airlines is entirely comprehensible even if we find it disreputable: he intends to lie to get what he wants, saying to the workers and unions that of course he intends to keep the company going, only to tell Bud he has no interest in doing so and will strip it bare for financial profit. Bud bails out because he finally sees through Gecko to the reptile underneath, but there is nothing in Gecko's approach that is especially unhinged no matter if the way he functions is often underhand and even illegal. But in the more recent films on finance there is the absurd as the real and the virtual clash.

It is evident in McConaughey's claims in The Wolf of Wall Street when he discusses investors' money: the point isn't to make money for one's clients, but to take real money they give and keep it in the virtual sphere. This means that it keeps making money not for the customer but for the stock broker, who can cream off real profit from the shares when they go up, but who cares little about what happens when the shares go down. As he talks furiously we feel he is in the virtual sphere as well. It is also there in the shed in New Jersey as Di Caprio sells people the fantasy, while in Margin Call hardly anybody can understand the figures that are bringing a huge corporation down. It is evident in the latter film in the corporate acceptance that the company will sell the shares off as quickly as possible before people realize how useless the stock happens to be. Wall Street is a film that exists in the real world with tangible assets and tangible moral quandaries; the more recent works acknowledge much more that international finance is a fantasy industry where people needn't only be vain and greedy like Gecko, but capable of living in a parallel universe where virtual exchange can nevertheless lead to immense personal gain in the form of Porsches, planes and yachts, but where the pain is invisibly felt across the globe by the many at the mercy of world finance.

When one returns to Wall Street today we do so not to understand an aspect of the financial world and the nature of its milieu and the means and methods of the transactions, but as a return to the 'real' world, and where symbolism takes on the form of the ancient myth we have already invoked rather than the symbolically contemporary. In other words where Stone can draw on Mephistopheles and Icarus, on the father figure as the choice between good (Carl), evil (Gecko) or the subtly omnipotent (Sir Lawrence), perhaps the symbolism required now to understand the world Wall Street explores isn't mythological but algorithmic: the symbols not of ancient wisdom but of modern technology. Whether they happen to be used for financial transactions, police procedurals (cops targeting neighbourhoods based on incidences of violence pumped into a computer) or Hollywood scripts based on the mean of successful films of the past, the symbolic structures important to our lives are troublesomely computational more than they're historically cultural.

Of course not all the recent films on finance explore in detail the complexity of the financial transactions. Both Margin Call and The Wolf of Wall Street accept that if the maths is too complicated for most people in the industry then there is not much chance of the viewer understanding them either. Margin Call illustrates the serpentine nature of the financial through the traders trying to make sense of information that is beyond their ken, while in The Wolf of Wall Street, Di Caprio starts to explain what he does to the audience only to tell we the viewers that it needn't really interest us. What he wants to show us instead is the good life that comes out of the dubious: the drink, drugs, the sex; the cars, the houses, the yachts. If in Wall Street the transactional and the material are in balance, in The Wolf of Wall Street the transactions have become so complicated, and the good life so hyperbolized, that the representational pull is away from the financially abstract and towards the materially concrete. The documentaries are more given to explore the financially logistical, but they cannot avoid the labyrinthine in the process of doing so. They yearn for the moral arc but the transactive complexity of events is such, that it means that we are often inclined to judge the various figures involved on the basis of their sweaty reactions and their stumbling self-justifications more than by comprehending the complex actions they were involved in. This is baroque villainy, where we can't always follow the plot but we can assume that even if we don't know exactly what somebody has done wrong, wrong has undeniably been done. During Inside Job and Enron there are interviews in front of public committees, and we watch as various high level employees twitch and blink while trying to answer, or avoid answering, difficult questions. We might not understand the specifics, but we understand the evasiveness of body language when we see it.

If Wall Street tries to balance the good life with the bad deeds, Enron and Inside Job focus on the latter, while The Wolf of Wall Street concentrates on the former. Yet we find Wall Street old-fashioned partly because it attends in equal measure to the material accoutrements and the financially transactive, as if the one is as explicable as the other. Thus near the end of Wall Street Fox's plan to outwit Gecko as he pushes up the share price before Gecko buys BlueStar, and pushes the prices down again afterwards so that Sir Lawrence buys him out on the cheap, has the sort of narrative twists and turns of a film noir or a sting film, it is as if finance can be narratively contained by plot devices used elsewhere, just as the expenditure of this money can be represented equally easily. But such is the increase in wealth and the increase in complexity of the financial markets, that a pressing question for film now is how they should be shown. Inside Job doesn't just talk about a plane a CEO possesses but how many of them the company owns, and so for a film to do justice to this affluence the image becomes not envious but positively absurd, unreal. The fleet of limousines becomes a fleet of airplanes, and how does one fill a driveway with 747s? The person no longer owns a plane; he needs to own an airport. A swimming pool, a tennis court, a Rolls Royce become metonymically inadequate. It is like a variation on Dr Evil's rather pathetic request in the Austin Powers film where he asks for $1 million dollars at a time when, in Boris Johnson's words (referring to his mere 250,000 a year Telegraph column) such a sum would be "chicken feed".

Thus we have two modes of hyperbole available: one towards the narratively baroque as the transference of money passes through so many hands that the paper trail can't even be followed by those initiating the transactions, perhaps would prefer not to be. When banks were suspicious that Bernie Madoff (whose Ponzi scheme led to a hundred and fifty year prison sentence) was pulling off a scam, Inside Job's director Charles Ferguson notes in his Guardian article that banks were told to take a close look at Madoff's transactions, but "not a single bank that had suspicions about Madoff made such a call." The other is representational: how do you suggest wealth so enormous that the images of immense prosperity (from Catherine Tremell's lifestyle in Basic Instinct, for example, to Howard Hughes's in The Aviator) can seem paltry? Documentaries like Enron and Inside Job indicate the narratively elaborate nature of financial transactions no matter if they are non-fictional works, while The Wolf of Wall Street show the exorbitant luxury by suggesting there is no end to the accumulation; only limits to the body as it tries to have it all.

Hence we find ourselves watching Wall Street today not as a film that astounds us by a greed is good ethos for which it became famous, but for the ready containment of its rejection through narrative convention, and through showing representational wealth that doesn't now seem especially excessive. The film even concludes on the criminal, with Bud Fox arrested for his insider trading, then wearing a wire as he meets Gecko in the park while Gordon indicts himself on tape. Of course The Wolf of Wall Street concludes similarly. But where one senses in Wall Street the world returns to normal after the relative excesses we have seen, The Wolf of Wall Street has shown such outlandish wealth, and that Di Caprio's character is a product of norms rather than exceptions (while Wall Street has, overall, shown the opposite) that the excesses more generally can't be curbed by a prison sentence.

One of the pressing questions concerning post-modernism has been the imaginary's capacity to outstrip the real: the mediated image imposing itself upon the actual event and that resulted in Jean Baudrillard's famous claim that The Gulf War Didn't Take Place in his book of that name. Baudrillard of course didn't believe there wasn't a gulf war at the beginning of the nineties; merely that it was an event so carefully controlled and mediated that what mattered was its representation to the detriment of the unpleasant reality. This was part of the society of the spectacle as Guy Debord might have defined it: the Los Angeles Olympics, the French bicentenary celebrations, the wedding of Charles and Diana. This is consistent with post-modernism as stage-managed reality. But what happens when the event goes beyond our capacity to represent it? This is no longer the problem of post-modernism as an epistemological issue of truth, but a hyper-modern realization that the representational system can't quite capture the complexity of the event, or, its flipside, where the reality is caught ad hoc, as we find with images from Iraq seen on people's phones, or images from 9/11 caught on people's cameras. If writers like Baudrillard and Debord saw the dangers of reality being commodified by media power, this problem of representation as too slippery (as in the case of finance), or too digitally available (anyone can film an event now) generates a different type of crisis in the image.

One wouldn't want to suggest the newer films are dealing especially with this problem and generating a new relationship with the image as a consequence, but if we find Wall Streettouchingly dated it resides in taking the world of finance and believing it can deal with it in several manageable ways that now seem too easy. Firstly in the culturally symbolic over the algorithmic; secondly in the belief that the complexity of old-style storytelling can do justice to the complexity of high finance; thirdly in representing great wealth as plausible rather than absurd; and fourthly by indicating that a moral can be wrestled from the subject without complication. Of course many will claim watching any film from the past inevitably leads us to feel that the film is old-fashioned, but this is often the case only in the narrowest sense: that technologies have moved on, actors have passed away and the pro-filmic realities explored have since been transformed. Yet often films escape such obsolescence in the fruitfulness of their themes and the richness of their exploration: watching It's a Wonderful Life shortly after the 2008 crash felt like watching a revolutionary work, as it indicated the importance of collective power and a faith in one's fellow man. It served as an antidote to the ethos so prevalent in homo economicus which suggests the individual is what matters and scepticism towards others what counts. It didn't feel old-fashioned; more a contrary approach that can give us hope against the onslaught of selfish values passing themselves off as natural. Here was a film made just after WWII that indicated the opposite: that co-feeling was much more fundamental. One offers it as an example simply to insist that Wall Street is not dated because it is old; more that it works off a set of assumptions both representational and ethical that today feels quaint.

Thus the film suggests that Gordon Gecko is anomalous rather than normative as Stone shows us numerous stockbrokers in Bud's office as hard-working people playing it straight, and gives us three father figures of which only one happens to be corrupting. Bud is here surrounded by moral values, and though we wouldn't want to claim that high finance is an inevitably corrupting influence, the crash indicated more than the occasional preacher of a greed is good ethos. It suggested not only that greed was good, but that greed was miraculous. The brokers weren't too far removed from Jesus Christ but with an inverted generosity: they weren't turning water into wine and sharing loaves and fishes; traders were turning junk bonds into personal fortunes. When Hal Holbrook's seasoned stock broker (and all but a fourth father figure here) talks about playing it straight, he presents stock exchange personnel as a barrel of apples with the rotten ones easily removed. What Wall Street adds up to is not a film helping us to understand a complex world of financial transactions and the behaviourally new (towards an ethnography of a world of wealth), but a determined attempt to contain the world of finance within traditional ethical systems that leaves us in little doubt where we stand morally, but not always so sure that we understand the milieu in which we now find ourselves.

If we happen to be living in a hypermodern age then of course this doesn't mean that all art works preceding it need somehow to anticipate it. That isn't our point. It's a Wonderful Life doesn't at all predict the hypermodern, but it does manage to propose values that counter in meaningful ways the ethos of crisis capitalism, where money is a virtual symbol dictated by algorithmic complexities which cannot help but arrive at the unstable. Is it not partly about predicting on the basis of complex equations what stocks will rise and which will fall? It's a Wonderful Life asks what are the alternatives to such crisis capitalism, and it is a valid one at a time where the choice is between risky investment or keeping your money under the bed because the interest rate is so low there is little point leaving it in the bank. In Frank Capra's film, the townspeople go to central character, banker George Bailey, and put their money into his bank as if aware of Marx's maxim: from each according to their needs and each according to their abilities. Those with savings invest; those needing to borrow have the means made available to do so, and the money circulates directly within a small monetary sphere. This is neither corporate nor crisis capitalism, but communal capitalism. Watching It's a Wonderful Life might in some ways feel like one is viewing a Hollywood fantasy, but it can also appear more like real life than The Wolf of Wall Street's negative equivalent, which could be called it's a wonderful life too, but only for its central character and his friends. The fictional wealth generated in the latter, contrasts with the tangible wealth in the former - evident in the cash the townsfolk deposit.

It's a Wonderful Life and The Wolf of Wall Street are flipside films that nevertheless give us a sense of community capitalism at one end and crisis capitalism at the other. One is rooted in the real and the other exploring the hyperbolized, but they both seem films that should be put in the time capsule long before Wall Street. The older film because it shows capitalism segueing into communism and the importance of the communal and tangible, and the latter because it exemplifies a certain hyper-modern approach to capitalism that shows money and the individual utterly out of control. Wall Street is a film of only minor importance as it allows us to speculate less over the failure of high finance, than the failure of the film to capture its nature or go deeply enough into showing alternatives. All the father figures and symbolism cannot quite discover pressing first principles.


© Tony McKibbin