Culture Warrior: Wall Street’s Catharsis Index

One of the most puzzling aspects of the film is Carey Mulligan’s character, Winnie Gekko, who continues to experience the wounds that her father left as his greed inevitably led to his absence, yet these festering wounds somehow don’t prevent her from…getting romantically involved with a Wall Street stock trader. In comparison to some of the billionaires portrayed in the film, Winnie and Jacob Moore’s (Shia LaBeouf) apartment might be considered modest, but by any other standard it’s incredibly extravagant. So while Winnie may have developed a liberal ideology running implicitly counter to the ‘values’ of Wall Street (though we are never given access to exactly what her beliefs are), she never realizes the ways in which she contradicts her own values as she attends expensive galas attended by the manufacturers of the financial meltdown, depends on her egotistical and greedy boyfriend for her well-being (she can’t, of course, simply give up the luxuries that being a Gekko provided for her up to this point), and beams brightly at the venture capitalism opportunity Jacob bestows upon her (rather, she allows herself to be manipulated against her better judgment).

If Winnie’s job does somehow provide for herself the luxuries we see (can’t she show her environmental consciousness by using public transportation instead of driving a Prius around New York City of all places?), this hardly overshadows the schism of her ideology between her work life and her personal life. While represented as the only innocent soul amongst all the casualties and black hearts of Money Never Sleeps, Winnie is, by her actions, the clearest example of hypocrisy within the narrative (none of the greedy stock traders, after all, pretend to be anything but who they are in this film). In a sense, Winnie is a true Gekko even if she doesn’t realize it as she, to a limited extent, opportunistically banks of the same frustration that Gordon does.

When Gordon Gekko delivered the iconic “greed is good” speech from the first film, by then it was a fact already obvious to most of its implied audience (even the rotating young fraternity of real life traders who developed a cult around both this phrase and “Always Be Closing” from Glengarry Glen Ross while conveniently ignoring the anti-Reaganomics cautionary components of both texts). The audience that never quite knew how “good” greed was (as in, how pervasive it is in enabling short-term function and long-term dysfunction) were those who criticized the ethos of Wall St. without without realizing their complicity in their own form of entitlement and ambition (a faction represented by Winnie), those who have had a taste of privilege and engage in this cognitive dissonance so that the myth of social mobility can persist. In a sense, we all believe that at some point or another we deserve to have a Gordon Gekko emerge from the shadows of the Lower East Side with a newly acquired heart, a sense of empathy, and, most importantly, the money to immediately obliterate our debt. Money Never Sleeps, by turning Gekko into something of a human and a last-minute messiah-with-cash, cynically refuses to engage with the roots of our pervasive cultural greed and all its corresponding implications, tacking on a false happy ending and pretending that just one more investment is the key to achieving universal contentment – thus furthering a false sense of finality in prosperity that the ethos behind investment capitalism imbues.

The ending of Money Never Sleeps is either a cop-out or brilliantly cynical in making its contradictions obvious, and the film itself is as entertainingly cathartic as it is half-baked. Bringing new insight to the issue is not the name of the game of the catharsis index in Hollywood. Unlike Americans’ filmgoing habits of the Great Depression, we aren’t seeking Hollywood’s ability to provide a temporary escape from our troubles in the sense of genre and spectacle, but we also aren’t necessarily seeking films that provide truth. The catharsis index provides a new form of escapism, one with the appearance of social relevance but without substance beyond Hollywood’s tradition of wish fulfillment and entertaining distraction. I wonder what Wall Street 3 will have to say about us in 23 years.

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Landon is a PhD candidate currently writing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture. He enjoys slow films on the beach.

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