To a packed morning audience of press and industry at the enormous Grand Theatre Lumiere in Cannes, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel, subtitled Money Never Sleeps, debuted — and launched a roundhouse attack on the banking industry. It’s 2001 at the outset of the film: Gekko’s getting out of prison, reclaiming his old enormous cell phone, and nobody’s there to pick him up. Cut to 2008: Gekko doesn’t have the capital (or license) to trade, but he’s making a living doing lectures and talks based on his new book Is Greed Good? He’s playing the Nouriel Roubini role of financial Cassandra, decrying the ways he got rich, all that “steroid banking.” “Greed is good,” Gekko recalls himself saying. “Now it seems it’s legal.”
Did the director of JFK make another conspiracy film? Absolutely. There’s a shadowy, wood-paneled room where powerful white billionaires, from both the Fed and the Street, meet to decide the fate of companies — and, not surprisingly, decide that they should get bailout money to be reimbursed in full for their risky losses. At times, the film feels like a supercharged, angry editorial: a kind of “steroid filmmaking.”
Stone merrily goes about attacking the banking industry, implying that the whole business is in a state of constant moral hazard. As such, the film is fun, quick, and bold — but also, inevitably, as conflicted about money as the rest of us. If Gekko is so bad, why is he so fun to watch? That’s been the conflict since the first Wall Street debuted and young traders weren’t horrified, but inspired. In this film, Stone tries to have it both ways: Gekko is nefarious and evil as ever. But when, as he says, “only about 75 people in the world understand all this stuff” (referring to credit-default swaps and so forth), even the good guys need somebody with Gekko’s expertise. Yes, there’s some stuff about Gekko’s desire to reunited with his daughter (Carey Mulligan), and much opining about the value of family versus money — but, honestly, when there’s so much money at stake, and the gamesmanship is so fun, where do you think Stone is going to focus?
Just as Stone compared millionaire NFL players to gladiators fighting for their lives in Any Given Sunday, he has Gordon Gekko explain to his young protégé (Shia LaBeouf) that, “It’s not about the money. It’s the game.” And the film builds like a sports flick, complete with a fourth-quarter Hail Mary that sends the game into overtime. Maybe the reason Stone seems outraged and content at the same time is that he thinks this level of greed is just as fundamental and natural as clashes on the battlefield. “The biggest bubble,” Stone reminds the audience in a repeated metaphor, was the Cambrian explosion which led to the evolution of humans. With no lack of bravado, Stone suggests that the system is so corrupt, the whole species’ bubble may burst too. How’s that for raising the stakes?