'Wall Street' Screenwriter on the Meaning of Greed

Instead of being greedy in the mid-eighties, screenwriter Stanley Weiser was creating America's most enduring symbol of greed: Gordon Gecko. As portrayed by Michael Douglas in "Wall Street," Gecko was an insider trader who, not unlike today's financial villains, had one underlying idea: "Greed is good." Weiser spoke with NEWSWEEK's Kurt Soller about his take on toxic assets, the reprehensibility of Bernie Madoff and, ultimately, why greed belongs in the movies—not real life. Excerpts:

SOLLER: So, as you know, I'm calling you to talk about the idea of greed.
OK, I have to tell you something. I remember, around the time that "Wall Street" came out, NEWSWEEK ran this cover: The 80s Are Over: Greed Goes Out of Style. Everything about greed. And that the movie "Wall Street" was passé, and that spending was passé and that buying huge, expensive items was passé. Basically, that we were in a new decade.

Uh, sorry about that.
[Laughs] It's OK. The mind is not medieval or modern. Greed doesn't come in or out of fashion.

Exactly. I'm guessing that's why, originally, your screenplay was titled "Greed"?
Well, it was good timing. Those insider-trading scandals with Ivan Boesky and Dennis Levine were just beginning, and we were hitting this wave of all kinds of scandals. I was writing the script around the time [Michael] Milken was arrested, so that left a certain luck or impression on the time that the movie came out.

So now, for that mandatory question: is greed good?
No, I actually had to say something to the Los Angeles Times about that. The message was not "greed is good." It's worth reminding that Gordon Gecko goes to jail at the end of the movie. Somehow, there are people that erroneously start to see him as a role model. I always tell people: greed may be good, but you'll never see a Brink's truck pull up in front of a cemetery.

Why do you think people wanted to be Gecko?
Basically, the public hadn't been hurt enough to express the kind of outrage and fury necessary toward these out-of-control machinations of the stock market. The public wasn't hurt enough, and people went right back into technology, and quickly forgot the blip in the economy that was 1987.

That's obviously changed now. People are certainly hurting.
Today, we've lost huge amounts of money. People have lost their 401(k)s, their jobs. Back then, people just wanted to get back on the gravy train and find new gimmicks; once insider trading was policed, people came up with new gimmicks like derivatives. Then, of course, we had everyone moving on to subprime mortgages. Even in 2001, people said a new sobriety would seep back into consciousness. But it never did. Until now, greed never really hit individuals.

That said, what would a modern Gordon Gecko look like?
Well there's a sequel coming out, but I'm not involved—I was working on the screenplay for "W." But I know it's back with Gecko coming out of jail. But he wouldn't be allowed to trade and I know that he would basically have to work using others. It's in a shark's blood to keep moving.

So what would be the modern equivalent of a movie with insider trading?
If Gecko was around right now, he would find a way to buy into these government-owned toxic assets. Then, he would just pay for them at six cents on the dollar.

Who comes to mind as representing a modern equivalent of Gordon Gecko?
These guys right now are not rogue, maverick types. It's a different world now. When you list the bad guys, they're all corporate executives, or AIG guys, or government executives and CEOs. So who are the villains now? Well, there's [Bernard] Madoff, but he's more like a serial killer. He destroyed people's lives.

Yeah, and Gecko was just fiction.
It's much worse. Yes, "Wall Street" was about a cheat who, basically, hurt people—but in a collateral way, whereas, the people now have caused pain that is direct and much greater.

If you were to try a screenplay now on the same subject, what would it be about?
I'd love to write a movie about Harry Markopoulos and how he tried to stop Madoff—and was basically ignored. He was, effectively, trying to stop a serial killer before he kills his next person. I don't think I would touch Madoff's own story. He's so reprehensible and odious. But to show one person who could've stopped him? That's interesting, because it gets at how capitalism has gone haywire.