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The original Wall Street movie is one of the best-known movies to have brought the dilemmas and challenges of business ethics to mainstream Hollywood cinema. Released in 1987, it has become a classic—mostly due to its powerful storyline, great writing and directing by Oliver Stone, and an Oscar-winning performance by Michael Douglas. It is considered by many to be the ultimate 1980s business portrait, reflecting the rise of liberalized financial markets and the stock-market boom during that decade. The core story is about a young stockbroker Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) who in his quest for the success and glamour of a rich Wall Street banker’s life falls under the spell of corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Douglas). The moral maze that Bud finds himself in focuses on a deal regarding the takeover of an airline company, which he can recommend to Gekko based on insider information gathered through his father. The latter, played by Sheen’s own father Martin, is an airline mechanic and union member—and as such, highly suspicious of the dealings of his son. Ultimately, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) gets wind of the deal and after being arrested, Bud ends up saving his own neck by providing evidence about Gekko’s role as the true villain in the game. Besides being a highly entertaining, funny, and intelligently scripted piece of cinematography, the film has become a classic for a number of reasons. Certainly, it is full of witty and thought-provoking dialogue. Michael Douglas delivers killer lines such as ‘lunch is for wimps’, ‘I create nothing. I own’ and ‘rich’ is not ‘$450,000 a year, but rich enough to have your own jet’. Unforgettable too is his notorious ‘greed is good’ speech in the film, which he makes to the shareholders of a company he wants to buy out. These scenes remind us of how closely the film is modelled on some of the real-world insider scandals on Wall Street at that time. One of those Wall Street icons, Ivan Boesky, later sentenced for insider trading, gave a nearly identical speech to a business school audience months before. Twenty-three years later, as part of the spate of post-financial crisis movies (see also Ethics on Screen 1 and 2), Stone released the sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. The movie returns our attention to Gordon Gekko (played again by Michael Douglas), who after eight years in jail for the crimes he committed in the first movie, is back in the game, which now is the world of hedge funds and private equity. Set in the late 2000s, this time his younger, to-be-corrupted counterpart is his future son-in-law, Jacob Moore (played by Shia LaBeouf).

Gekko begins the movie as an apparently changed man, promoting his book Is Greed Good and warning of imminent financial collapse on the talk-show circuit. However, it soon becomes evident that he is just as sly an operator as ever, playing fast and loose with rules of corporate governance to suit his own ends, which in this case also involves reconciling with his estranged daughter. The plot involves many twists and turns as Gekko finds a way to engineer millions of dollars into his hedge fund while helping Moore to avenge the collapse of his former mentor’s investment bank during the financial crisis. While the critical acclaim of the sequel clearly falls short of the iconic status of the original Wall Street movie, both movies are worth viewing, not least for the different perspectives they provide on governance scandals. The first movie centres on insider trading, its very personal costs, and the emerging culture of greed in Wall Street. The sequel, in contrast, focuses less on specific acts of wrongdoing and more on the institutional problems of governance in the financial sector. Companies are wrecked and fortunes are lost at the whim of the market and the swirling of rumours rather than hard facts, while global capital flows make effective oversight next to impossible. So, taken together the two movies provide a real-life example of why cultural change on Wall Street is so difficult to achieve and how a liberalized economic system predicated on ruthless maximization of self-interest easily incentivizes actions of questionable moral status.


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