How Wall Street's Gordon Gekko inspired a generation of imitators.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Sept. 25 2007 5:02 PM

Greed Is Bad. Bad!

Gordon Gekko was supposed to be a villain. Instead, he became a Wall Street folk hero.

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He's not exactly being hyperbolic, either. Gekko's business, of course, is to eviscerate entire organizations and profit from the steaming entrails, even though he insists, "I am not a destroyer of companies—I am a liberator of them!" (Despite the reptilian name, Douglas cannily plays the villain as a vaguely animatronic shark—as a well-lubricated death machine.) Carnivorous bravado is integral to the era's most memorable portraits of greed, whether in Bonfire (there's a telling moment when someone mishears the title of a book called Merger Mania as Murder Mania) or in Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho (1991), in which serial killer Patrick Bateman tells an acquaintance that he works in Murders & Executions. The Drano-strength wit of Ellis' blackhearted satire might have been overshadowed by all those lovingly depicted M&Es, but American Psycho is a more incisive and efficient (not to mention funnier) summation of the era than Wall Street: It distills both the slash-and-burn frenzy required of Bateman/Gekko's professional milieu and the purgative effects that extreme wealth and power can have on the soul, and encapsulates them within one sharply dressed, vigorously exercised, homicidal maniac.

Given the excesses of the late '00s, we may be overdue for a maniac to call our own. On the Wall Street DVD, Stone reckons that his film made Hollywood more amenable to making movies about business, but if there was little evidence for that claim in 1987 (13 years passed before the release of Wall Street's closest descendant, Boiler Room), there's less so now—with the obvious exception of Money Never Sleeps, which nonetheless reanimates another era's icon rather than inventing one from scratch.

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Money Never Sleeps promises a newly globalized milieu (Pressman has stated that the film's locations include London, the United Arab Emirates, and "an Asian country"), but it may also provide an opportunity for Douglas et al. to provide a corrective to one of the unexpected side effects of Wall Street: the cult of personality attached to Gordon Gekko. Douglas says he's still stunned by the number of people who tell him that his Oscar-winning role was the reason they went to work on Wall Street. "It's so depressing and sad," Douglas says. Perhaps the actor's bemused remorse will result in a Gekko II that's a filthier piece of work, less glamorous, more pathetic. After all, nobody ever went into finance because of Patrick Bateman (or at least, no one would ever admit it), but there's no shame in naming Gekko as one's Bad Father. "I recall looking at that film and saying, 'That's what I want to be,' " recounts the late hedge-fund manager Seth Tobias in one of the Wall Street DVD featurettes. Somehow, an oleaginous villain meant to embody the worst excesses of his era became a folk hero and highly persuasive career counselor. Wall Street was intended as a cautionary tale, but oddly enough, it endures as a possibly timeless model for success.

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