Wall Street Crash Course: Greed's Not Just Good, It's Essential

A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shortly before the end of the day's trading in New York July 31, 2013. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Before they were the vampires who sucked the life out of American industry and vitiated the middle class, bankers were gods, Masters of the Universe, astride the world in their Brioni suits. Before that, though, they were dullards, conservative custodians of other people's money. Maybe the banker was a happier creature back then. What a bummer it must be, after all, to have a Gulfstream private jet you only use to fly down to D.C. for congressional hearings on high-frequency trading.

Whether you're a Koch brothers fanboy or a Bernie Sanders supporter, you have to admit that the financial industry makes for great drama—or, at least, drama with lots of expensive clothes. The Big Short, the recent film by Adam McKay adapted from the Michael Lewis book about the 2008 financial crisis, and Billions, the new Showtime series starring Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis, come at an especially fraught time for the money trade. To listen to some from the current crop of presidential candidates, you might conclude Wall Street is an especially pernicious ISIS splinter cell. There is Donald Trump railing against "the hedge fund guys" and Sanders focusing his avuncular rage on too-big-to-fail institutions, reminding the nation that "greed is not good."

Gordon Gekko, the fictional villain of Oliver Stone's Wall Street, would disagree (he coined the famous maxim about greed's virtue, after all, and looked damn good doing it in his contrast-collar shirts), as would many of the characters in The Big Short and Billions. Greed is not only good, but maybe the whole point, not only of the financial system but good old American individualism, free-market capitalism, non-Scandinavian democracy, this culture of ours that treats the color of your credit card as a major status symbol.

A little real talk, OK? If greed were bad, we'd regulate it like cigarettes. But greed is not just good, it is essential, which is why eight years after the Great Recession, the banks are as profligate and speculative as they have ever been. The annual pay of Jamie Dimon, head of JP Morgan, was recently revealed to have been raised by 35 percent to $27 million. McKay concludes The Big Short with a dour textual note about credit-default swaps becoming en vogue again. Sure, you can blame lax regulation, point to all the banks we should have forced on a diet but fattened up instead. That's not the point. The point is, we want a new television, a bigger house. And we will reward those who allow us to satisfy our material desires.

Several varieties of greed are on display in The Big Short, a film about the 2007-2008 financial crisis that, like a Polaroid of Mount Everest, grapples awkwardly with a subject too great in scope for so pedestrian a treatment. Most jarring are weird asides in which celebrities explain mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps. It's not that I have any objection to Margot Robbie in a bathtub, lecturing for fleeting moment while holding a champagne flute; rather, I'm confused by a feature film that frequently becomes a macroeconomics podcast with Hollywood cameos. This is cheating: If you can't explain a concept within the narrative of a movie, either that concept doesn't belong or the narrative is insufficiently complex for the story it wants to tell.

McKay does make a couple of important points, derived as those may be from the excellent Lewis book on which his film is based. First, it is that greed is especially toxic when coupled with stupidity. The housing bubble crashed, the film argues persuasively but rather heavy-handedly, because the people who bundled mortgages, rated the resultant securities and wrote complex insurance policies pegged to those loans defaulting had no idea what they were doing. In the film's finest scene, two Bro-Magnon mortgage brokers reveal the utter depravity with which home loans have been handed out. Foreclosures are already ravaging their state, but all they want is another mojito. Steve Carell, playing Mark Baum, looks on horrified.

But it's not like Baum is in it for homeless kittens: his real-life counterpart, Steve Eisman, made hundreds of millions by shorting the housing market, while Michael Burry (Christian Bale at his best) reaped gains of nearly 500 percent by making the same bet. That's the same profit motive that animated Bear Stearns and AIG, only practiced smarter. McKay tries to grapple with this fact, largely by showing Carell's anguished face as Lehman Brothers collapses, taking the entire American economy with it. Sitting on a terrace high above Park Avenue, he displays immense unease about the treasures coming his way. We love nothing like a rich man with a conscience.

Billions is the more streamlined work, and the more pleasurable to watch. Showtime is adept at making enjoyable television that isn't hard on the frontal lobe, but which also doesn't leave you with the guilt awaiting at the end of a three-hour Scandal binge. The show's closest relative might be Showtime's other great drama, Homeland, which is about terrorism. Both take troubling aspects of the modern world and render them into the kind of melodrama you can easily countenance on a Sunday night.

The premise of Billions is very simple: Bobby Axelrod (Lewis) runs a hedge fund that has done something bad. The bad thing is presumably insider trading, though the creators of Billions—including New York Times high finance writer Andrew Ross Sorkin—wisely dispense with the kinds of details that McKay trips over in his film. A good guy, federal prosecutor Chuck Rhoades (Giamatti), wants to punish Axelrod for doing bad things.

Rhoades seems an obvious stand-in for Eliot Spitzer, that "sheriff of Wall Street" who also happened to be the scion of an Upper East Side real estate fortune. He is preening and insufferable, impossible to cheer for. There is also some of the crass ambition displayed by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, he of the eyeliner debate, as well as the zeal of federal prosecutor Preet Bharara.

"Axe," on the other hand, radiates working-class machismo and know-how. He is from Yonkers and went to Hofstra, but there isn't a Wharton wunderkind who can grasp the flows of capital as capably as he does. The basis for Axelrod's character appears to be Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, worth about $15 billion.

But these are inexact comparisons: what makes Billions so fun, in part, is its meticulously unflattering composites of both lawman and fat cat.

Most striking about Billions is the absence of joy: for a show about the 1 percent, it rarely shows anyone actually enjoying wealth and all its attendant benefits. Greed may be good, but it is no fun, this show argues: There is always the pressure to make more money. A competitive misery pervades the offices of Axe Capital; the fund's employees are only happy when it looks like Axelrod is going to unload his positions. It is the only time Axelrod is happy, too, enjoying the lavish country life he has worked so hard for. Rhoades, though, does not believe Axe Capital is going to disappear. "No one quits while they're ahead," he snarls (Giamatti is very good at snarling: too good, I fear). "This isn't France—it's America."

Both The Big Short and Billions owe billions to Stone's Wall Street. Since the early glory of Wall Street and Platoon, Stone has made films that have been preposterous and, lately, just flat out bad. This stock market morality play may be his greatest contribution to late 20th century American cinema, a picture of the financial industry that remains remarkably undated, despite the boxy suits and boxier computers. (And the hair. Good God, the hair.)

The Big Short borrows from Wall Street a comedic quality, a winking recognition that the financial industry is really just overgrown boys taking marbles away from each other. It's quite startling to be reminded that Oliver Stone once had a sense of humor. Like its predecessor, The Big Short is bullish on hubris, but the young Stone was a more skilled director than McKay, and there is something of Fellini in his trading room scenes, a chaos of printouts and slammed phone receivers and shouted stock prices. It is maddening, beautiful, irresistible. Concerned with trying to explain how securitization eroded our financial stability—good luck with that!—McKay neglects to capture Wall Street's mad, pin-striped ballet.

Billions borrows something more obvious from Wall Street: a protagonist. Bobby Axelrod is a successor to Bud Fox (a painfully young Charlie Sheen, his face uncreased and mind apparently intact), a product of working-class Queens who borrowed his way through NYU and is now on Wall Street. His father (Martin Sheen), an airline mechanic, does not understand what his son does. To him, Bud is just a salesman, a mover of ethereal capital who fools people into giving him money. Wall Street has none of the sanctimony of a series like Mad Men, which treats the writing of advertising copy like an especially complex surgical procedure.

Wall Street came out two months after the "Black Monday" stock market crash. Many a Bud Fox had to scurry back to Queens. But markets are cyclical, and there were soon new Bud Foxes ready for the trading floor. In 1999 came repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which allowed commercial banks to engage in more speculative activities. A new, more sophisticated species of Fox came to that feast—and hasn't yet left. Bernie Sanders may sound a little too much like my great uncle in Kew Gardens, but he has point.

The dangers of this new profligacy—banking as acrobatics involving other people's money—are apparent to Lou Mannheim, the older patrician banker in Wall Street, played perfectly by a dignified Hal Holbrook. As he walks through a trading floor of young men in pinstripes, he laments that there is "too much cheap money sloshing around the world." Too much? Not for the Bobby Axelrods among us. For them, there will never be enough.