The life of commerce is far more dramatic, engaging, and even thrilling than its reputation suggests. There are clear signals to follow (prices and profitability), which make it easy to determine success. There is energy and the action of competition. There is a reward for intelligence and foresightedness. And there is plenty of risk.
Rather than turning viewers into raving socialists, the opposite happens: the romance of capitalism becomes the lasting impression.Under the right conditions, enterprise can be an extreme sport. It’s not just personally rewarding. As the theorists of the Scottish Enlightenment were first to suggest, it also benefits the whole of society. The winner gets the gold, but so does everyone else.
It’s not easy to make a movie that demonizes all of this, not if it is realistic. The very act of presenting the drama of enterprise – complete with huge rewards – can inadvertently serve as a recruitment tool into the world of commerce. One of the reasons is that so few movies treat business life at all. They are so rare that just to get a peek into this world is thrilling by itself, even if the intention is to cast aspersions.
I can think of at least five movies that have done exactly that. Rather than turning viewers into raving socialists, the opposite happens: the romance of capitalism becomes the lasting impression.
Oliver Stone made this wonderful movie to deal the final blow to the “decade of greed” and the criminality it unleashed. But there was a real problem. All the characters seemed rather awesome to the viewer: great lives, epic jobs, smart dealings, high taste in all things, and so on. To go along with Stone’s intended narrative, you had to sympathize with regulators hounding smart stock traders for their noncompliance with arcane regulations.
The issue was “insider trading,” but it turns out to be difficult to show people what precisely is wrong with having more knowledge about something than your competitors. It was so difficult to do so that Stone had to arrange for the aspirational trader Bud Fox to break into an office and illegally copy files – which is, of course, a crime, regardless of insider trading rules.
The movie also failed to generate anti-capitalist hysteria because Gordon Gekko was so awesome (perfectly rendered by Michael Douglas). He was driven, sporty, sexy, and wore the greatest men’s fashions ever seen on the big screen. Then there was his famous speech, the one that supposedly incriminated him but strangely hits upon a truth everyone knows:
Now, in the days of the free market, when our country was a top industrial power, there was accountability to the stockholder. The Carnegies, the Mellons, the men that built this great industrial empire, made sure of it because it was their money at stake. Today, management has no stake in the company!
All together, these men sitting up here own less than 3 percent of the company. And where does Mr. Cromwell put his million-dollar salary? Not in Teldar stock; he owns less than 1 percent. You own the company. That’s right — you, the stockholder. And you are all being royally screwed over by these, these bureaucrats, with their steak lunches, their hunting and fishing trips, their corporate jets and golden parachutes.
Teldar Paper, Mr. Cromwell, Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents, each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I’ll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents.
The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. In the last seven deals that I’ve been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you.
I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them!
The point is, ladies and gentleman, that 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 USA.
Somehow I missed this when it first came out, but I watched it recently. I’m almost certain that it was designed to illustrate the dangers of rapaciously capitalistic takeover artists. The technology in the film is a kick because this was before the web – traders use terminals on their desks and by their beds to stream stock prices by satellite.
The main character is Lawrence Garfield, a corporate raider magnificently played by Danny DeVito. He seizes on an undervalued but overcapitalized mom-and-pop (literally) company and targets it for a takeover. He is voracious and measures his self worth according to his balance sheet. Even his love interest in the film is inspired by her willingness to play the takeover game with as much passion as his own.
He is loathsome, right? Not so much. He is smart, far-seeing, fearsome, and all-around kind of awesome. In his speech to the stockholders, he follows up an impassioned plea by the company’s founder to not throw away history and tradition, much less disregard worker rights. Given time, the company will come back in a big way. Garfield responds in a wonderful speech to the actual owners of the company:
Amen. And amen. And amen. You have to forgive me. I'm not familiar with the local custom. Where I come from, you always say "Amen" after you hear a prayer. Because that's what you just heard – a prayer. Where I come from, that particular prayer is called "The Prayer for the Dead." You just heard The Prayer for the Dead, my fellow stockholders, and you didn't say, "Amen."
This company is dead. I didn't kill it. Don't blame me. It was dead when I got here. It's too late for prayers. For even if the prayers were answered, and a miracle occurred, and the yen did this, and the dollar did that, and the infrastructure did the other thing, we would still be dead. You know why? Fiber optics. New technologies. Obsolescence. We're dead alright. We're just not broke. And you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure.
You know, at one time there must’ve been dozens of companies makin’ buggy whips. And I’ll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw. Now how would you have liked to have been a stockholder in that company? You invested in a business and this business is dead. Let’s have the intelligence, let’s have the decency to sign the death certificate, collect the insurance, and invest in something with a future.
“Ah, but we can’t,” goes the prayer. “We can’t because we have responsibility, a responsibility to our employees, to our community. What will happen to them?” I got two words for that: Who cares? Care about them? Why? They didn’t care about you. They sucked you dry. You have no responsibility to them. For the last ten years this company bled your money. Did this community ever say, “We know times are tough. We’ll lower taxes, reduce water and sewer.” Check it out: You’re paying twice what you did ten years ago. And our devoted employees, who have taken no increases for the past three years, are still making twice what they made ten years ago; and our stock — one-sixth what it was ten years ago.
Who cares? I’ll tell ya: Me. I’m not your best friend. I’m your only friend. I don’t make anything? I’m makin’ you money. And lest we forget, that’s the only reason any of you became stockholders in the first place. You wanna make money! You don’t care if they manufacture wire and cable, fried chicken, or grow tangerines! You wanna make money! I’m the only friend you’ve got. I’m makin’ you money.
Take the money. Invest it somewhere else. Maybe, maybe you’ll get lucky and it’ll be used productively. And if it is, you’ll create new jobs and provide a service for the economy and, God forbid, even make a few bucks for yourselves. And if anybody asks, tell ’em ya gave at the plant.
And by the way, it pleases me that I am called “Larry the Liquidator.” You know why, fellow stockholders? Because at my funeral, you’ll leave with a smile on your face and a few bucks in your pocket. Now that’s a funeral worth having!
Pretty edgy stuff, but more compelling than it should be if the script writer intended people to side with the founders over the raiders.
Richard Gere plays Robert Miller, a hedge fund manager addicted to leverage. And not just financial leverage – his tendency to live in the danger zone affects his personal life in profound ways, to the point that he is always on the verge of total ruin. One wrong move and it’s all over!
When the ruin doesn’t happen, he enjoys the reverse: universal acclaim as a brilliant savior of the world. The viewer is constantly amazed at his back-room deals, his quiet manipulations, his cover-ups and outright lies. It’s more anxiety and terror than almost any normal person could handle. And he does it all while looking fabulous.
The theme of the film seems to be about the illusions and delusions that modern finance capitalism requires. We are supposed to come away with a sense of disgust that the confidence game somehow works in the end. But rather than disgust, you can’t help but be impressed. It is also impossible not to root for the “bad guy” here simply because you love his derring-do.
There is no epic speech because so much of his dealings must remain private. But the drama is all there. And yes, Miller is shown to lose the respect and love of people who are very close to him, and we are supposed to come away thinking, “Wow, this kind of life is terrible and comes at too high a price.” And yet…
This recent film is the most familiar to the current generation. And it is by far the most disgusting. The substance abuse, the filthy language, the ghastly misogyny, the promiscuity, is beyond belief. The portrayal of Wall Street and finance capitalism is ugly beyond description. I walked out in disgust at my first attempted viewing.
And yet, there are redeeming qualities. These people aspire to achieve. They are ambitious. They are highly competitive. They win at the game and enjoy massive public adulation for it. Leaving aside all the corruption and decadence, this feature by itself has merit. Director Martin Scorsese surely intended to create unmitigated revulsion at all the goings-on, but the portrayal of the main players was at times so funny and strangely admirable that it fails to demonize the system in the end.
I know personally of many millennials who have found great inspiration in this film. They look at the hard work, the willingness to make cold calls and start from the bottom in hopes of rising to the top, the promise of a wonderfully rich lifestyle, as a motivator. The film actually shocks a lazy and indifferent generation out of its stupor and into commercial life. Maybe I can be that wolf too!
Again, this anti-capitalist screed comes to be filtered by some people’s minds to become a model of achievement. Gag if you want, but it is true.
You know the narrative of the 2008 financial crises – that it was caused by greed, as if greed hadn’t existed before, as if government has any means to curb it through regulation, and as if nothing about the housing bubble was due to easy money or moral hazard created by regulators themselves. This film seeks to reinforce it at every stage. It’s a fascinating film that does a fine job explaining the trajectory of the housing crash, but nowhere deals with its actual cause. And this is extremely frustrating for those of us who know otherwise.
But you know what’s strange about this film? It makes heroes out of short sellers, those far-seeing speculators who bet that current prices are unsustainable. This is pretty much the opposite of the usual anti-capitalist script that treats short sellers as pariahs. It’s not even clear that the people who rally around this film understand what they are cheering.
But guess what? Short selling is part of the capitalist process. Every competitive market has optimists and pessimists. It takes both to make it work, and those who are right get the reward. Oddly, though the film implies that more regulations will save us from the next crisis, it shows that this one was exposed not by government but by attentive traders. In other words, the big short saved the day.
Bonus! Margin Call (2011)
This movie is not really anti-capitalist. It is far more ambiguous than that, and highly accurate, as a result. I’ve seen it probably ten times and I could watch it another ten. It is my all-time favorite. I’m adding it here just so I can post the speech delivered by Jeremy Irons, who plays the CEO of an investment banking firm that unloads all its mortgage securities products just before they tank to zero.
Over lunch, he explains his thinking:
So you think we might have put a few people out of business today. That it’s all for naught. You've been doing that every day for almost forty years Sam. And if this is all for naught then so is everything out there. It’s just money; it’s made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat.
It's not wrong. And it's certainly no different today than it’s ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, 37, 57, 84, 1901, 07, 29, 1937, 1974, 1987 – Jesus, didn't that [eff] me up good – 92, 97, 2000 and whatever we want to call this. It's all just the same thing over and over; we can't help ourselves. And you and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it.
We just react. And we make a lot money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there's ever been. But the percentages-they stay exactly the same.