The plot of an engaging play on Broadway, Enron, is ripped straight from The Wall Street Journal. In the opening scene, high-living finance types celebrate an accounting technique that promises to vault their business into the stratosphere. There are off-balance sheets, conflicts of interest, credulous Wall Street analysts, a hands-off CEO, and a dorky and greasy-haired finance jockey who becomes a buff stud before crashing. When they're not screwing one another, the venal, vain executives are screwing over the shareholder.
The protagonist (played with flair and great energy by Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz) isn't Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld or Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne. It's Jeffrey Skilling, the now-jailed CEO of Enron. The show sends up what was, until the fall of 2008, one of the greatest debacles in American financial history. With the talk of George W. Bush's candidacy, deregulated electricity markets, and trading bandwidth capacity, the content is definitely last decade. But the human foibles it lays bare—the grasping, the arrogance and hubris of financiers, the temptations of off-balance-sheet debt, the corruption of the business establishment, and the refusal to take responsibility—are very much au courant.
Here are a few of the best attempts to capitalize on capitalism as entertainment.
It's easy to forget that It's a Wonderful Life, a film that was essentially about the 1933-vintage bank crisis, didn't come out until 1946. As the old formula goes, tragedy plus time equals comedy. But as the April, 2010, charges against Goldman Sachs show, the current tragedy isn't over—not by a long shot.
It's particularly tough to turn the most recent crisis into good entertainment. Blogs, in-depth newspaper reports, CNBC's wall-to-wall coverage, and several dozen nonfiction books have turned the players into too-familiar characters. Also, it's still too soon. The best and most enduring Wall Street entertainment hasn't been post-bull-market autopsies, but ripping bubble-era tales. Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities started as a serial in Rolling Stone in 1984 and 1985, and was published in time for the crash of ‘87.
Oliver Stone's tale of greed also came out in the bubble era of 1987, just two months after the crash.
Now, Hollywood is recycling lots of old villains as new, post-crisis heroes. The trailer for Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps shows Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko being released from jail in the present (but not without an empty money clip and his brick of a 1980s cell phone). Grizzled, shorn of status, and eager to repair severed family ties, Gekko is shocked to find that the greed he once celebrated now runs rampant and has become institutionalized. Nowadays he's supposed to be one of the good guys.
Money Never Sleeps is one of the few big-budget pieces of crisis culture (irony: Hollywood has been one of the casualties of the meltdown, since hedge funds had been funding production through so-called slate deals, in which films were, like mortgages, turned into structured financial products).
In 2009 the BBC aired a snappy, one-hour narrative, The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, with James Cromwell in the role of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. The Britishisms can be off-putting—characters refer to Lehman as "Lehmans," and Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis, a Georgia native, has a drawl that sounds more Cornwall than Cobb County. Although many of the scenes are true to life, there's plenty of fantasy. At one point, Fuld and his assistant quote Revelations 18:3 to one another: "Because all the nations have drunk of the wine of the fury of her fornication … and the merchants of the earth have been enriched through the might of her luxury." On the real Wall Street, the only time big shots use the Lord's name, it's in vain.
The latest financial inferno has yet to produce villains who can hold our attention for a couple of hours. At first blush, Bernard Madoff's epic Ponzi scheme would seem to be fodder for at least a television series. But the Madoff who emerged from his brief confession and several books is a banal, unrepentant liar who acted largely on his own. There are no depths of soul to plumb. The FX series Damages, in its third season, centers on the Madoff-esque Louis Tobin, but he confesses and is sentenced in the first episode; by the third, he's committed suicide. Ted Danson's Arthur Frobisher, the coke-snorting, Enron-style villain of the first season, gets as much screen time as Tobin. It's as if an old villain had to be revived in order to maintain the audience's interest.
Public radio's This American Life in April aired a hilarious two-minute show tune—written by Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez, about a hedge fund's bets against subprime mortgages—called Bet Against the American Dream.