When he first appears in Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko—older, gray, thicker around the midsection—is lecturing at a college about the out-of-control debt culture. The inside trader has reinvented himself as a scold. "Greed is good," the takeaway line from Gekko’s showstopping speech in the original Wall Street, has been replaced by the flatter catchphrase "Buy my book."
That’s pretty much how it goes. Like its predecessor, Money Never Sleeps is an engaging, earnest, and occasionally overwrought story that lays bare the ways in which money warps values and screws up relationships. But Wall Street came out in December 1987, weeks after the horrific crash and long before Barbarians at the Gate and others pulled back the Wall Street curtain. In an era when cable-news anchors were anonymous, Wall Street had the field to itself. The bar for art that imitates Street life is higher now. What screenwriter could possibly trump the story of Bernie Madoff?
"It’s not about the money, it’s about the game, the game between people," Gekko tells Jacob (Shia LaBoeuf), the young broker engaged to his estranged daughter. But of course it’s about the money. If it were just a game between people, Wall Streeters would play epic rounds of Monopoly instead of screwing their friends and shareholders in an attempt to make gazillions. Ultimately, Wall Street 2 founders against the shoals of what we know now about the real Wall Street. The financial world and the movie are both universes in which dishonesty and manipulation are commonplace, accepted, lamented—and frequently forgiven. Only the Hollywood version offers the prospect of undeserved redemption.