Culture Warrior: Wall Street’s Catharsis Index

Culture WarriorI was living in New York in September 2008, and took some time a couple of days after the stock market crash to visit way downtown Manhattan and see what was going on. The quietude was shocking, as the alarms being sounded on cable news networks made it sound like I shouldn’t be surprised to see brokers peddling on the street, people running around on fire for no apparent reason, or CEOs segway-ing off of cliffs. As I rarely visited the Financial District, I had no idea whether or not this was normal.

Maybe the crash had invoked a necessary meditation or speechlessness, a rare time of reflection for capitalists-run-amok. But the truth was that such panic wouldn’t be visible on the street amongst the common folk (houses around the country owned by low and middle-income families told that story), rather the chaos was happening inside the buildings themselves. Oliver Stone’s latest entry into his “W” trilogy dealing with major 21st century American events (alongside World Trade Center and W.), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, is an attempt to inquire on the conversations that may have gone on in those buildings.

Economist Robert Reich has proposed on several occasions that some kind of Happiness Index be applied to the math going into the GDP. I admit here and now that I am no authority on economics and haven’t a clue about how human happiness could possibly be measured, but it does make sense that the mood of the people should be taken into account in a given economic equation. Economic factors affect mood, which in turn affect spending.

In Hollywood, however – that incredible American industry that profits greatly off the fact that we desire to routinely escape the realities of oppressive American industry – there is certainly a profit of a specific type being made off another American need that has been directly motivated by the economy: catharsis. Like The Other Guys arguably did less successfully, and alongside independently-produced documentaries like Inside Job, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, and Capitalism: A Love Story, Money Never Sleeps banks off the American need for a finger to point to, for somebody to blame and for a villain to vanquish.

In real life, we get Bernie Madoff, whose incarceration solves none of the systemic problems that his career represents. In movies, we get the classic and obvious movie villain, the clear delineation between good and evil that has no equivalent in lived reality – or, as in the case of this film, the difference between good greed and bad greed. The catharsis is as potent and effective as it is false, but it does provide an essential resource of sorts in responding to our attitudes. Why else would a corporate entity like Fox be interested in telling this story unless the catharsis index had significant profit potential? It’s kind of a genius move in capitalism, profiting from the negative American reaction to the aura of frustration and discontent that inevitably rises from a Recession, exactly as Gordon Gekko himself does in the film. But Hollywood movies have always proven to be an inexpensive vacation during dire economic times, and truth be told, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is exactly that.

Taking place in that frenzied month, the Wall Street sequel in many ways literalizes the sentiment I felt but didn’t see around me in September 2008, from Frank Langella falling to his intended death in front of the 6 train to the ego-panicked motorcycle race between two investors whose recklessness is equally evident everywhere else in their life. But Money Never Sleeps also looks at 2008 in hindsight, a time not too far back to know already how it all turns out, so the film constructs an ending in favor of relevance. 1987’s Wall Street was more of a contemporary response to the 80s writ large, commenting on the moment as the moment continues seven years into the trickle-down experiment. But Money Never Sleeps, like the other two entries into his ‘W’ trilogy, is a comment on a recent and recognizable history, but one explored without a sense of where that history goes or is going: it lies in an awkward middle ground between the reflection of Stone’s Vietnam films and the relevance of the original Wall Street.

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Landon is a PhD candidate currently finishing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture.

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