In the 1987 film "Wall Street," actor Michael Douglas plays corporate raider Gordon Gekko, who buys underperforming companies, guts them and sells the components for profit. Gekko’s foil is Bud Fox, a younger, more idealistic stockbroker played by Charlie Sheen. Directed and co-written by Oliver Stone, the story presents a number of ethical dilemmas played out against the backdrop of the American financial sector based in New York City, with all its attendant wealth and power.
Most moral judgments maintain that greed is bad. The dictionary calls it "excessive desire." The Bible, in Proverbs 15:27, states that: "Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household, but he who hates bribes will live." Gordon Gekko, by contrast, believes that greed is good. He says so in a famous, pivotal address to shareholders: "The point is, ladies and gentleman, 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."
Insider trading is the illegal practice of using confidential information to trade on the stock exchange to one's own advantage. The plot of "Wall Street" turns on this unethical practice. Young, ambitious Bud Fox entices Gekko with confidential information about the company his father works for and inadvertently sets in motion a chain of events. Gekko makes many of his most lucrative deals based on insider information. In a sector that relies on the free trade of information, there's sometimes a fine line between what's ethical and what isn't when it comes to tips and trades.
Although Gekko is proudly amoral and follows an ethical code of his own making, Fox struggles to do what society considers to be the right thing. As a result, he finds himself torn between allegiances – to family, to friendship, to his own interests. By the end of the film he has betrayed all these allegiances, leading to his downfall. In a coda of sorts, Fox makes a final betrayal when he wears a wire to a meeting with Gekko, who finally gets his comeuppance. It could be read as revenge ... or justice.
Not Playing by the Rules
Most players in the business arena compete under a set of rules -- some tacit, some statutory. For the main characters in "Wall Street," the object is to break or bend as many rules as they can get away with. Dealing dishonestly, flouting securities regulations, cheating, misleading, manipulating, bribing – they boast a toolkit of unethical practices. The only deterrents are getting caught or failing to profit. "Wall Street" doesn't just reveal unethical behavior in the story of Gekko and Fox; it is ultimately a critique of "the value system that places profits and wealth and the Deal above any other consideration," according to the late film critic Roger Ebert.
Margot Callahan has Bachelor of Arts degrees in philosophy and film studies. She has written for newspapers and magazines such as the "Toronto Star" and "Toronto Life Fashion" since 1991, in addition to producing and directing documentary films.