A discussion with reference to Gordon Gekko’s “Greed Is Good” speech from the 1987 hollywood flick-Wall Street
The oft misquoted, misunderstood and misjudged “GreedIs Good” speech by Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 hollywood movie, Wall Street, produced a gargantuan stir in “that malfunctioning corporation called the USA.” The speech came in at a time when America was traversing a road of sweeping socio-economic changes, trade scandals and prosecutions were daily scoops for news and the real world stock market suffered a setback. As such it was impossible to ignore the repercussions of the powerfully-writ dialogue stuffed into the mouth of Gekko (with its obvious pun), the half-brother of a Machiavelli perhaps. The aim of this essay is to analyse the famous (or infamous?) speech, by reading the message it has injected into mainstream culture and assessing its impact vis-à-vis an initiation of varied arguments/discussions about the aforementioned message and the slightly obfuscated and oft-overlooked real message of the speech. The essay also seeks to delve deep into the issue of the contested status of the speech as an espoused philosophy for the corporate world, affirming or refuting the reasons thereof, en route.
In an interview with Oliver Stone, the director of Wall Street, it became clear that Stone’s original design for Wall Street was to bare “its excesses and callousness,” and Gekko, his scheming, manipulative, repulsive anti-hero was meant to endorse the ‘bad/evil’ brand of behavior, discouraged and unapproved in Stone’s book of ethics. However, the impact of the reel-or-behind-the-reel intentions were antagonistic to the real-life consequences of the film. Whether it was the witty quips put in Gekko’s mouth or the brilliance of the convincing performance of Douglas in the creed put on display vis-à-vis Gekko, is hard to tell. Whatsoever be the case, it was found that the film quickly exhorted thousands to enter the ‘street.’ This is evinced in Stone’s own words, “I can’t tell you how many young people have come up to me and said ‘I went to Wall Street because of that movie’,” in a 2009 conversation with New York Times reporter Tim Arango. “So I think the movie was misunderstood by some,” Stone explains, “because it was about a horrible thing going on; about how people would worship money at all costs.” This phenomenon threw the real purport of the film as well as the “GreedIs Good” speech off-balance. While this new breed of “wannabe-Gekkos” flocked to the trading portals, whilst learning the blatant ‘greed is good’ doctrine espoused by Stone’s anti-hero, the critics undertook the daunting task of unravelling the real import of the speech. What they highlighted was the obvious obliteration of the ellipses in “GreedIs Good” quoted as “Greed Is Good.” The actual statement, as shown in the movie and uttered by Gekko was: “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” The phrase ‘for lack of a better word’, as simple as it appears on a cursory glance, is loaded with Stone’s intentions with regards to espousing a philosophy in relation to capitalistic society and ‘The American Dream.’ With the blatant fact of the phrase being a direct indication towards the fact that ‘greed’ does not encapsulate the essence of what he is talking about cast aside, the phrase and the follow-up speech are nominals of ‘the cult of personality’ (as talked about by Dale Carnegie and others) of the American dream and how it fed into the post-industrial capitalist boom- the pivotal constituents of hard work, success, money, a happy family and most significantly-freedom. The speech is a significant pointer towards the freedom and mobility that a morally superior and balanced system as capitalism offers, in lieu of a government-driven economy that stifles individual and economic growth, by taking away control from the site of individual agency. The speech also captures why this aforementioned misnomer ‘greed’ also “captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” It is precisely at this juncture that the significance of ‘greed’ trickles in, little by little and then all at once, informing the audience, how ‘greed’ is in fact, a ‘good’ thing:
“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.”
It is interesting to note that greed, as the speech has oft-been-blamed to promote, has been taken at its face value from the utterance as the obvious cardinal sin, in its crudest and basest form, the ever-increasing desire for money. And it is this misreading and misunderstanding of the speech that has propelled the capitalist machinery of USA to be fueled by ‘a success myth’ driven by money. In reality, the speech had other correlates to ‘greed’ that were given equal, if not more, importance as money. These were- life, knowledge and love. It is not easy to undo the satanic lure of the popular message that the misreading of the speech has administered into popular culture and the disastrous consequences resound wide and far. Kevin Rudd, Australian P.M. notes, “Today we are still cleaning up the mess of the 21st-century children of Gordon Gekko.” He further qualifies by adding “It is perhaps time now to admit that we did not learn the full lessons of the greed-is-good ideology.” Thus, it is clear that the speech promotes a balanced pursuit of the American dream in a post-industrial capitalist boom era, akin to Weber’s work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. However, one may easily contest why such an ideology should be espoused by using Gekko as a mouth-piece. The reason is simple- Hollywood, and for that matter all cinema has, since ages, used the anti-heroes to voice radical opinions, contrary to the conventional/real drift of things. It is a powerful and effective technique that makes the audience strive for a vicarious living of the same. That it must have been so wrongly perceived and executed was/is either just a bad stroke of luck or Douglas’ Oscar-winning performance. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that corporate America has passed the stage of welcoming the cardinal sin into its ambit of trade and commerce, and with aplomb. It has been working with it as central focus and destination, deflating Stone’s original vision and conception of capitalizing on ‘the cult of personality’- Gekko’s insistence on greed for life, money, love and knowledge.
Having discussed the speech and analysed its impact in detail, intended and otherwise, we have arrived at a place, where we are ready to make a foray into the realm of its influence on behavior in capitalist American society. Driven by an insatiable instinct for materialistic gain for too long, corporate America is overburdening the merits of a capitalist structure and the principles of laissez-faire economics. People are driven to work better by the lure of a perk, promotion, pay-raise or any material incentive. Their ‘greed’, as such, forces them to be devoured whole by the giant ‘corporate’ and give in extra hours and shifts, taking them away from the equally rewarding investments in life, love, knowledge and family. It is time that corporate America stands back and look at capitalism as the ‘balanced and efficient model’ it was proposed to be and indulge in a subtle critique of overdoing the ‘trade’. The current behavioral tendencies, in the words of Stephen Green, former HSBC chairman (and currently Conservative minister for trade and investment in the British government), “will no longer do.” It is about time we recognize that in the face of the validity of a statement as that of John Varley, Barclays Bank, “Profit is not satanic,” the words of Stephen Green, “profit is not the be-all and end-all of business. It is not the raison d’être of business” are equally valid, and significantly so.
“Wall Street’s Gekko”. Accessed March 12th, 2014. <http://www.pophistorydig.com/?tag=greed-is-good-speech>
“Wall Street (1987) – “Greed Is Good” ” . Accessed 12th March, 2014. <http://businessethicsblog.com/2010/10/12/wall-street-1987-greed-is-good/>
“Greed Is Good, by Stu Burguiere” . Accesses 12th march, 2014. <http://media.glennbeck.com/fusion/preview/greedisgood.pdf>