Decades Later, Is Greed Still Good?

More than 20 years ago, Gordon Gekko's mantra was 'greed is good.' The character and his philosophy were inspired by real men and real events. And even though Gekko is meant to be a villain, he became a hero on the "real" Wall Street. In the sequel to Oliver Stone's 1987 movie, Gekko is just getting out of prison and his personal life is in shambles.

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When Oliver Stone made his 1987 movie "Wall Street," people did not automatically assume there would be a sequel. Maybe we should have. Wall Street didnt become any less dramatic. In a moment, we'll have a review of Oliver Stone's new "Wall Street" movie. We begin with the links between the movie's great trader Gordon Gekko and real life.

Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Even Gordon Gekko's iconic speech...

(Soundbite of movie, "Wall Street")

Mr. MICHAEL DOUGLAS (Actor): (as Gordon Gekko) Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.

BLAIR: ...was inspired by a real speech given by a real Wall Street powerhouse. In 1986, Ivan Boesky, the arbitrageur who was convicted of insider trading, told a group of college students that greed is all right and greed is healthy.

Mr. JAMES STEWART (Author, "Den of Thieve): I was really startled, I think, because he starts giving his famous speech in first one and, you know, that wasn't even fiction.

BLAIR: James Stewart is the author of "Den of Thieves," a book about the men behind the insider trading scandal of the 1980s, some of whom inspired the Gordon Gekko character. Stewart says Gekko, as played by Michael Douglas, even resembled Ivan Boesky.

Mr. STEWART: He had the look. He had the suits, the constant suntan.

BLAIR: And like Gekko, Ivan Boesky went to jail for insider trading. In the sequel to "Wall Street," Gordon Gekko has served his time and now he's pretty much broke. Instead of a limo, he's got a Metrocard. He rents instead of owns. And he's estranged from his daughter.

Oliver Stone directed "Wall Street" I and II.

Mr. OLIVER STONE (Director): He has no relationships when he comes out of prison. She doesnt come and visit him. It's a very depressing thing. He has no wife, she's left him years ago. His son has unfortunately committed suicide. So he's got nobody who's waiting for him outside the prison. That's after a six-year stretch. That's quite something.

(Soundbite of movie, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps")

Mr. DOUGLAS (as Gordon Gekko) They took my life. And when I got out, who's waiting for me? Nobody.

Mr. STEWART: This resonates with the Boesky story.

BLAIR: Author James Stewart.

Mr. STEWART: Certainly at one time Boesky was estranged from everyone in his family. His wife left him. His children were estranged from him.

BLAIR: Gordon Gekko is also partly inspired by Michael Milken, known as the junk bond king. Milken served less than two years in prison. Today, he's a philanthropist. And here's where Gordon Gekko's kinship with these men ends. Boesky and Milken were barred from ever working in securities again. Gekko? Nah, this is Hollywood. He's back in the game.

(Soundbite of movie, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps")

Mr. DOUGLAS (as Gordon Gekko) Right now it is ugly times ugly, and thats when the ugly get going. (Unintelligible) for me, babe: Gordon Gekko is back.

BLAIR: The new movie is set in 2008, just as the magnitude of the financial crisis is being made public. In real life it was September of that year that screenwriter Allan Loeb - a self-described financial junkie - went to New York to do research for the movie.

Mr. ALLAN LOEB (Screenwriter): You know, September 15th was D-Day in the financial crisis. It was Lehman Brothers. It was the credit crunch getting to this nexus. It was a very, very scary time.

BLAIR: And Loeb was there to talk with bankers and hedge fund managers, as research for the screenplay.

Mr. LOEB: It was crazy. I was researching the movie but I was also watching people come to Jesus. There was a lot of therapy in those sessions. Believe it or not, I'd sit down with people and they would start pouring their hearts out to me. And I'd be like, dude, I'm just writing a movie here.

BLAIR: Allan Loeb says most of the people he interviewed at the time said the worst is behind us. And that miscalculation helped inform Gekko's character. Loeb says he wanted Gekko to be the one in the movie who saw the carnage that was coming.

Mr. LOEB: There were very few people that were saying this is going to get much worse, and this is systemic, and this is dangerous. And I said, I want Gordon to be the one of those guys, and then I want people to laugh at him for it. And then I want him to be right.

(Soundbite of movie, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps")

Mr. DOUGLAS (as Gordon Gekko) You know, there's fortunes to be made - hundreds of millions of dollars betting against this bubble. I just wish I had a million.

Mr. STEWART: He kind of morphs from the Ivan Boesky character into like one of these big hedge fund guys who bet on the market collapse.

BLAIR: Longtime financial journalist James Stewart wishes the filmmakers hadn't let a convicted felon like Gekko be the one to predict the crash. And yet, Stewart admits, it's not such a stretch. He says Gekko is like a lot of people on Wall Street - he's smart and he loves the game, just not the rules.

Mr. STEWART: One of messages of the Boesky/Gekko character is that when you're talking about trading, you're talking about business, you're talking about Wall Street, you know, morality kind of just gets in the way. You know, the goal is to win. The goal is to make money. And as a result, they are completely disdainful of any kind of laws or restrictions or boundaries.

BLAIR: Idealism, says Gordon Gekko, gets in the way of every deal.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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