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Culture Warrior: Wall Street’s Catharsis Index

By  · Published on September 28th, 2010

I was living in New York in September 2008, and took some time a couple of days after the stock market crash to visit way downtown Manhattan and see what was going on. The quietude was shocking, as the alarms being sounded on cable news networks made it sound like I shouldn’t be surprised to see brokers peddling on the street, people running around on fire for no apparent reason, or CEOs segway-ing off of cliffs. As I rarely visited the Financial District, I had no idea whether or not this was normal.

Maybe the crash had invoked a necessary meditation or speechlessness, a rare time of reflection for capitalists-run-amok. But the truth was that such panic wouldn’t be visible on the street amongst the common folk (houses around the country owned by low and middle-income families told that story), rather the chaos was happening inside the buildings themselves. Oliver Stone’s latest entry into his “W” trilogy dealing with major 21st century American events (alongside World Trade Center and W.), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, is an attempt to inquire on the conversations that may have gone on in those buildings.

Economist Robert Reich has proposed on several occasions that some kind of Happiness Index be applied to the math going into the GDP. I admit here and now that I am no authority on economics and haven’t a clue about how human happiness could possibly be measured, but it does make sense that the mood of the people should be taken into account in a given economic equation. Economic factors affect mood, which in turn affect spending.

In Hollywood, however – that incredible American industry that profits greatly off the fact that we desire to routinely escape the realities of oppressive American industry – there is certainly a profit of a specific type being made off another American need that has been directly motivated by the economy: catharsis. Like The Other Guys arguably did less successfully, and alongside independently-produced documentaries like Inside Job, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, and Capitalism: A Love Story, Money Never Sleeps banks off the American need for a finger to point to, for somebody to blame and for a villain to vanquish.

In real life, we get Bernie Madoff, whose incarceration solves none of the systemic problems that his career represents. In movies, we get the classic and obvious movie villain, the clear delineation between good and evil that has no equivalent in lived reality – or, as in the case of this film, the difference between good greed and bad greed. The catharsis is as potent and effective as it is false, but it does provide an essential resource of sorts in responding to our attitudes. Why else would a corporate entity like Fox be interested in telling this story unless the catharsis index had significant profit potential? It’s kind of a genius move in capitalism, profiting from the negative American reaction to the aura of frustration and discontent that inevitably rises from a Recession, exactly as Gordon Gekko himself does in the film. But Hollywood movies have always proven to be an inexpensive vacation during dire economic times, and truth be told, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is exactly that.

Taking place in that frenzied month, the Wall Street sequel in many ways literalizes the sentiment I felt but didn’t see around me in September 2008, from Frank Langella falling to his intended death in front of the 6 train to the ego-panicked motorcycle race between two investors whose recklessness is equally evident everywhere else in their life. But Money Never Sleeps also looks at 2008 in hindsight, a time not too far back to know already how it all turns out, so the film constructs an ending in favor of relevance. 1987’s Wall Street was more of a contemporary response to the 80s writ large, commenting on the moment as the moment continues seven years into the trickle-down experiment. But Money Never Sleeps, like the other two entries into his ‘W’ trilogy, is a comment on a recent and recognizable history, but one explored without a sense of where that history goes or is going: it lies in an awkward middle ground between the reflection of Stone’s Vietnam films and the relevance of the original Wall Street.

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One of the most puzzling aspects of the film is Carey Mulligan’s character, Winnie Gekko, who continues to experience the wounds that her father left as his greed inevitably led to his absence, yet these festering wounds somehow don’t prevent her from…getting romantically involved with a Wall Street stock trader. In comparison to some of the billionaires portrayed in the film, Winnie and Jacob Moore’s (Shia LaBeouf) apartment might be considered modest, but by any other standard it’s incredibly extravagant. So while Winnie may have developed a liberal ideology running implicitly counter to the ‘values’ of Wall Street (though we are never given access to exactly what her beliefs are), she never realizes the ways in which she contradicts her own values as she attends expensive galas attended by the manufacturers of the financial meltdown, depends on her egotistical and greedy boyfriend for her well-being (she can’t, of course, simply give up the luxuries that being a Gekko provided for her up to this point), and beams brightly at the venture capitalism opportunity Jacob bestows upon her (rather, she allows herself to be manipulated against her better judgment).

If Winnie’s job does somehow provide for herself the luxuries we see (can’t she show her environmental consciousness by using public transportation instead of driving a Prius around New York City of all places?), this hardly overshadows the schism of her ideology between her work life and her personal life. While represented as the only innocent soul amongst all the casualties and black hearts of Money Never Sleeps, Winnie is, by her actions, the clearest example of hypocrisy within the narrative (none of the greedy stock traders, after all, pretend to be anything but who they are in this film). In a sense, Winnie is a true Gekko even if she doesn’t realize it as she, to a limited extent, opportunistically banks of the same frustration that Gordon does.

When Gordon Gekko delivered the iconic “greed is good” speech from the first film, by then it was a fact already obvious to most of its implied audience (even the rotating young fraternity of real life traders who developed a cult around both this phrase and “Always Be Closing” from Glengarry Glen Ross while conveniently ignoring the anti-Reaganomics cautionary components of both texts). The audience that never quite knew how “good” greed was (as in, how pervasive it is in enabling short-term function and long-term dysfunction) were those who criticized the ethos of Wall St. without without realizing their complicity in their own form of entitlement and ambition (a faction represented by Winnie), those who have had a taste of privilege and engage in this cognitive dissonance so that the myth of social mobility can persist. In a sense, we all believe that at some point or another we deserve to have a Gordon Gekko emerge from the shadows of the Lower East Side with a newly acquired heart, a sense of empathy, and, most importantly, the money to immediately obliterate our debt. Money Never Sleeps, by turning Gekko into something of a human and a last-minute messiah-with-cash, cynically refuses to engage with the roots of our pervasive cultural greed and all its corresponding implications, tacking on a false happy ending and pretending that just one more investment is the key to achieving universal contentment – thus furthering a false sense of finality in prosperity that the ethos behind investment capitalism imbues.

The ending of Money Never Sleeps is either a cop-out or brilliantly cynical in making its contradictions obvious, and the film itself is as entertainingly cathartic as it is half-baked. Bringing new insight to the issue is not the name of the game of the catharsis index in Hollywood. Unlike Americans’ filmgoing habits of the Great Depression, we aren’t seeking Hollywood’s ability to provide a temporary escape from our troubles in the sense of genre and spectacle, but we also aren’t necessarily seeking films that provide truth. The catharsis index provides a new form of escapism, one with the appearance of social relevance but without substance beyond Hollywood’s tradition of wish fulfillment and entertaining distraction. I wonder what Wall Street 3 will have to say about us in 23 years.

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