On December 11, 1987 Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street was released in U.S. theaters.
Gekko has no pangs about taking over, gutting, and reselling companies regardless of the impacts on employees and local communities.
In fact, he’s proud of his takeover record, as he explains in the memorable speech he gives that includes the line usually misquoted as “Greed is good,” a shortened version of what Douglas actually says.
That now familiar saying is partly based on an actual speech given by the real-life Wall Street investor and money manipulator Ivan Boesky.
On May 18, 1986, Boesky gave the commencement address at the UC Berkeley’s School of Business Administration.
At the time, Boesky was a widely admired financial wizard who was riding high.
One of the things he told the students was this proto-Gekko quote.
“Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”
Boesky was feeling a tad less good the following year, when he was convicted of filing false trading records and sentenced to three years in prison, after also paying a record $100 million to settle a conviction for insider trading.
Boesky’s rise and fall and his infamous Berkeley quote were part of Oliver Stone’s inspiration for Wall Street.
Gekko clearly echoes Boesky in the scene in which he calls greed good.
In that scene, he’s speaking to a meeting of shareholders of the company Teldar Paper, which he wants to take over.
To encourage them to approve his takeover bid, he tells them he has studied the company and found that the current management is wasting money and shortchanging shareholders.
Then he says:
“I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them. The point is, ladies and gentlemen, 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. Thank you.”
The Teldar shareholders like what Gekko says and give him a standing ovation.
And, despite the fact that Gekko is a slimy character who is ultimately goes to prison for insider trading involving another company, and despite the financial scandals and meltdowns that happened before and after Wall Street was released, there are many people who like and essentially agree with the philosophy he expresses in that speech.
It’s fits the Ayn Randian “enlightened self-interest” creed of hard core advocates of business and opponents of “over-regulation” – a subset of people who have increasingly dominated American politics.
The end of Wall Street is somewhat uplifting. Gekko goes to jail and Bud Fox, the young protégé who initially helped him in a crooked takeover scheme (played by Charlie Sheen), blows the whistle on Gordon and redeems himself.
If Gekko existed in real life, he’d probably view the current push to reduce the regulation of businesses and financial markets as uplifting.
Indeed, events of the past few years might remind many people of something else Gordon Gekko says in Wall Street.
He explains to Charlie Sheen’s character:
“The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars…We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you buddy?”
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