In 1987 Gordon Gekko, addressing his fellow shareholders at the Teldar Paper board meeting, chastised management for having no stake in the company that they ran. Gone were the days of accountability to the stockholders. The “bureaucrats,” as he refers to them, live a life of excess off of other people’s money. He keenly points out that “the new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest…in [his] book you either do it right or you get eliminated.”
It has been 27 years since Gekko gave his iconic “Greed is Good” speech in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, and his words seem more prophetic than ever. The entire world is now balancing on an economic model that is more unstable than the wobbly wooden block towers my two year-old builds. The “unfittest” have, if the films of 2013 are any indication, found the secret express elevator up the financial ladder and are laughing all the way to the top.
Greed was not only alive and well at the cinema in 2013, but was also having one hell of a good time. If “Greed is Good” was the slogan for excess in the late 1980s, then surely “Greed is Fun” was last year’s anthem.
The flag bearer for this merry parade of indulgence is undoubtedly The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort. Our gleeful guide through the story of his life, Belfort wears his self-made wealth with the same pride as a soldier receiving a Purple Heart medal. The head of his own brokerage by age 26, Belfort’s biggest lament is that he was just shy of making a million a week. He proudly lists his daily routine of drugs and women like a chef divulging his special recipe, only pausing to ensure that we know his Ferrari is white and not red. An important detail for sure.
The fact that all his wealth came through illegal means only adds to the legend of Belfort. A sharply dressed Robin Hood who steals from both the rich and the poor, and keeps it for himself, Belfort takes pleasure in teaching others how to cheat the system. After all, it is better to simply take what you want rather than earn it the old fashion way. Plus, as director Martin Scorsese points out in the film’s reflective final moments, it is us, the viewer, who is actually at fault.
It is our desire for a fast buck that has allowed men like Belfort to get away with his antics. We all want to “sell him the pen” rather than sit on public transit, like Agent Patrick Denham, knowing that our honest day of work did little to change our meager existence. Some have, and rightfully so, pointed out that Scorsese’s message regarding the evils of our greed gets lost in the three-hours worth of drugs, sex, and misogyny on display. The fact of the matter is that most who love the film are walking away entertained by the logistics of dwarf tossing, and other acts of debauchery, instead of being repulsed by Belfort’s actions.
Although Scorsese does not condone Belfort’s actions, again it is the audience who are to blame; he does take great pleasure in pushing the envelope to show just how much gleeful debauchery Belfort and friends were having. It is this same “can you believe this” joy which is prevalent throughout Michael Bay’s ode to excess Pain & Gain. In the feverishly kinetic film, a trio of muscular meatheads set out to devour their slice of the American pie. Like Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, the story of Daniel Lugo and crew are ripped directly from real-life headlines. A personal trainer at a local gym, Lugo devised a scheme to kidnap and extort his wealthy clients. Lugo and his team not only wanted to be on the other side of the glass ceiling, but to smash through it head first.
Instead of condemning his characters, Bay revels in their stupidity. The audience is asked to laugh at The Three Stooges level of blunders that Lugo makes along the way. Even during its bloodiest moments, the film reminds us that this actually happened. However, Bay has so much fun with the men’s exploits that the lines between satire and familiar Bay tropes glorifying excess begin to blur. Bay ensures that we never truly hate Lugo; in fact he is downright entertaining. Some of the film’s best comedic moments come when Lugo literally assumes the life of his victim, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), by not only driving his expensive car, but literally living in the man’s house.
What makes this aspect of Lugo’s escapades so delightful is that Kershaw’s neighbours seem to enjoy his company more than they do Kershaw’s. Frankly, we do to. Though not the sharpest tool in the shed, he is the lesser of two evils.
In most of the films of 2013 that dealt with money, the real villains were not those trying to get money, but those who already had it. This is why we are meant to cheer for the con artist lovebirds at the center of American Hustle. For all their crooked exploits, they still display a glimmer of having a conscience unlike either the FBI or the mafia.
It is also hard to deny that, as we see in both Pain & Gain and The Wolf of Wall Street, there is something inherently fascinating about seeing the “unfittest” living out their version of the American dream. It quickly becomes apparent how shortsighted their lofty goals really are.
This is why Spring Breakers ’ cornrowed drug dealer, Alien, is so mesmerizing. Similar to Lugo, he has no real grasp of what it really means to live the posh life. He tries to impress his bikini-clad muses by showing them the rows of money that drape his bed like a cheaply made quilt. For Alien, having a beachside grand piano to play and sing Britney Spears songs and being able to watch the film Scarface on repeat “is the fuckin’ American dream.”
Despite amassing wealth and expensive sports cars, he still needs the validation of the young balaclava wearing girls to believe that he has actually “made it”. It is no different to Belfort trying to impress, and subsequently bribe, Agent Patrick Denham with his fancy yacht. Alien and Belfort are cut from the same cloth as neither is able to handle rejection in any form. They firmly believe that acting the part is the same as living it.
As with any game of charades, it is only a matter of time before the other players become wise to all the tell signs. This makes the fall from grace so devastating…in the minds of the characters at least. If Blue Jasmine’s own Jasmine Francis is to be believed, then living an ordinary life is a fate worse than death. In fact it is downright maddening. When her husband is arrested for shady investment deals, which Jasmine was content to be blissfully ignorant about, she finds herself living amongst the commoners.
Clinging to the last embers of the now doused flames of her decadent life, including flying first class despite having no money, Jasmine slowly becomes trapped within her memories of the past. She not only had the best of everything that upscale society had to offer, but always felt superior to her adopted sister Ginger. Now forced to live with Ginger and take a job as a dental receptionist, a ghastly profession in her eyes, Jasmine does not know how to cope. She has lost that spark that only her life of money and excess could ignite.
If Gordon Gekko was to look at the money obsessed individuals that illuminated the big screen in 2013, he would nod approvingly. They all embodied his philosophy that “Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” Furthermore, they would have taught him that greed can be downright entertaining.
Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2013 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how various themes emanating from a single idea change when utilised by varying artists. The yearly event was created by Andrew Kendall of Encore’s World of Film & TV. You can find the complete collected list of Motifs in Cinema pieces from various film bloggers over at Andrew’s site.