Hollywood and Capitalism: The Gordon Gekko syndrome

Gekko - the unacceptable face of capitalism


Lunch is for wimps.


It’s not a question of enough, pal. It’s a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn’t lost or made, it’s simply transferred from one perception to another.


I don’t throw darts at a board. I bet on sure things. Read Sun-tzu, The Art of War. Every battle is won before it is ever fought.


The most valuable commodity I know of is information.


 If you need a friend, get a dog


You gonna tell me the difference between this guy and that guy is luck? [points at a bum and businessman]


Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. 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 U.S.A.


Someone reminded me I once said “Greed is good”. Now it seems it’s legal. Because everyone is drinking the same Kool Aid.


Gordon Gekko




From the opening strains of Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon Oliver Stone’s 1987 flick Wall Street had me hooked. It really seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the 1980s Now this week sees the premiere in Spain of the long awaited sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. The most memorable character was the ultimate corporate raider Gordon Gekko, a man named after a lizard. Really Gekko wasn’t supposed to be the star of the film – that was supposed to be Charlie Sheen but he was  completely overshadowed by the Michael Douglas character, who has joined the pantheon of classic Hollywood movie villains like Hannibal the Cannibal and Darth Vader. Gekko with his trademark braces and slicked back hair become a cultural icon. Who remembers Sheen’s character, Bud Fox?  A lot of the moral message of the film was undermined by the sheer charisma of Gekko, a larger than life character who got all the best lines. Indeed both Douglas and the director Oliver Stone have said that a lot of young people they meet actually see Gekko as a role model. Life imitates art. This is somewhat similar to the effect of Coppola’s Godfather series.

But the Gordon Gekko character is by no means unique in Hollywood, where capitalists and capitalism are regularly cast as the baddies. This goes back a long way. Here are just a few examples:

Mr Potter – It’s A Wonderful Life

Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane)

Noah Cross (Chinatown)

Max Zorin – (A View To A Kill –  in many of the more recent Bond movies capitalists have taken on the roles once reserved for Nazis, Russians, or tinpot dictators.)   

Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Trading Places)

Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)

Norman Osborn/Green Goblin – Spider-Man

I could also mention films such as Michael Clayton, Erin Brockovich, Syriana, and The Constant Gardener. Capitalists are willing to do just about anything to protect their bottom line – murder, steal, bribe, poison millions of innocent citizens – Gordon Gekko is beginning to look like a choirboy. I am not referring to Ken Loach or Michael Moore – these are Hollywood productions.

We often hear about Hollywood being a mouthpiece of American capitalism but if we look at the actual evidence, the relationship is much more nuanced. Hollywood is of course a business and a product of capitalism. But the relationship can be very fraught. This tension was illustrated recently in Hollywood’s opposition to a proposal to launch financial exchanges which would enable investors to speculate on the box-office prospects of Hollywood films by buying and selling futures contracts. It may have been a good idea but it was probably not the best time to introduce it.

Why is there so much friction with capitalism?

Capitalism creates the wealth which finances the production of films and it supplies the new technologies and media. But when it comes to actually making a film, the tensions emerge. The big problem is with financiers – the late Sydney Pollack complained that economics was “the most inhibiting factor for a mainstream director making a film.”

 Hollywood needs capitalists, but with movies costing millions the capitalists’ incentives lead them to constrain the artistic visions of directors, if that affects the bottom line. This contradicts the artistic endeavour but directors are not always right. The ultimate artistic hubris was surely that of Michael Cimino, whose 1980 disaster Heaven’s Gate led to the demise of United Artists, a studio that had been founded in 1919 by Hollywood legends D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

Capitalism is not easy to portray on the silver screen. A concept such as the invisible hand does not really fit in with the Hollywood way of telling a story. The way thousands of people who do not know each other can collaborate so that goods get to the marketplace would make a boring film. The way markets allocate rewards is also misunderstood. It is most definitely not based on individual merit but on the value individuals produce for others. Hollywood itself is surely an example of this. This leads many actors to go on a guilt trip; they feel that their stardom has little intrinsic merit. They then feel obliged to make up for this so, they wear Che Guevara t-shirts, make fawning documentaries about Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez or get on their soapboxes about this, that or the other.

Of course over the last few years capitalism has quite enough of its own problems.  I have no problem with Hollywood reflecting this reality. I am not arguing that Hollywood is socialist – that would be patently absurd. But at least the next time someone is pontificating about Hollywood and capitalism, you can take a more sceptical point of view.


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