“Greed is Good” – Materialism in 1980’s Cinema

The 1980s were a problematic yet developmental period in history. Western society saw many changes in this decade, of which the consequences can still be seen today, in the 21st century. One of these changes was the rise in materialism. America in particular was subjected to an increased level of materialism amongst society, and this has been thoroughly explored and represented in cinema and television. Two of Hollywood’s most memorable films; Wall Street (1987) and Scarface (1983), offer audiences an insight into this period of history and how they each portrayed materialism and its effects on the common people.

Set two years prior to its release in 1987, Wall Street explores the struggles, pressures and conflicts experienced in Wall Street and the highly competitive stock market. A young and willing stockbroker, Bud Fox, is driven by ambition and is desperate to strive for success. Naive to the greed and games of this lifestyle, he cannot see that corporate raider, Gordon Gekko is using him to his own advantage. Bud’s avaricious decisions eventually threaten the livelihood of his humble father, causing him to question his loyalties.

Wall Street is, first and foremost, an example of a film that portrays the ‘American dream’ that so many American citizens crave. At the beginning of the film, Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” is played alongside beautiful and extravagant cinematography of the New York skyline and Wall Street, which immediately gives the audience an idea of the morals, values and ideals that may be shown in the film. The lyrics “fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars” highlights the fraudulent games that are so often played within Wall Street in order to make money. In this case, the moon symbolises Wall Street, and the stars are the rich, greedy corporate raiders, toying with their clients and colleagues and fighting to get to the top of the corporate ladder. The song is repeated later on, following Gekko’s famous “greed is good” speech and further shows a romanticised view of the rich and successful lifestyle. This makes the American dream much more appealing and is maintained throughout the film. In a later scene, an ethereal instrumental makes the scene feel almost dreamlike and creates a wondrous and magical tone, to mask and conceal the negative and dishonest parallels of the Wall Street lifestyle.

The topics explored in Wall Street are hardly fictitious and can be applied to real-life experiences in Manhattan’s richest suburb. In an article from the Financial Times, a New York banker Jean-Ives Fillion states that “the movie was a reflection of the industry at the time […] finance used to be about stability, values and about relationships […]. it showed a different side of finance that was taking hold.” This experience from just one of many citizens who work on Wall Street shows how Bud’s character closely represented Wall Street workers in 1985. Originally, Bud explains how he needs to make money and be successful in order to be financially stable and pay off his debts, as well as offering some of his earnings to his father. These pragmatic values quickly turn into corporate greed when Bud gets a taste of the money he could earn, and he begins to adhere to the film’s tagline, “greed is good”.

An interesting scene in this film occurs after Bud makes his first large sum of money and decides to buy a new apartment in the rich Upper East Side of Manhattan. This area of New York is the epitome of materialism, and is still well known for its wealthy residents, fancy restaurants and designer shops. He chooses the most expensive apartment the agent has to offer, saying “this is home”, as he overlooks Central Park and the towering buildings of the city. The audience then sees Bud in the newly decorated apartment, looking out of the same window which is now covered with venetian blinds, as is every other window. This subtle addition to the scene symbolises how he is trapped, showing how Gekko has him under his thumb and he is too naive to see it. The advice from an older colleague at the start of the film, “get out while you’re young” now seems useless as his greed continues to grow. Similarly, this is also used in the 2000 film American Psycho, which also explores 1980s Wall Street, but in an extreme manner. The main character, Patrick Bateman, a deranged stockbroker, lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side which is covered with blinds. In contrast to Wall Street, this symbolises how he is trapped inside his own head as his mental health deteriorates. Yet his constant drive to succeed and outdo his colleagues stems from wanting more and being greedy, which has left him in a negative cycle that he is stuck in. The materialistic view of needing to be perfect and have everything is as relevant now as it was in 1987 with Wall Street‘s view of life in the fast lane.

Where Wall Street can be observed as a glorified view of the New York ‘yuppie’ lifestyle, Scarface can be seen as a glorification of the criminal lifestyle, where drug-taking, murder and materialism are glamorised. Similar to Wall Street, Scarface questions the audience’s morals and values as we see the rise and fall of a power-hungry immigrant wanting his slice of the American dream. Tony Montana feels destined for bigger things as he expresses, “these hands ought to be picking gold from the streets”, yet his greed gets the better of him and is eventually the cause of his demise. This is shown to the audience in the foreshadowing dialogue. When asked, “what’s coming to you?”, an ambitious Tony responds, ” the world, and everything in it”, then towards the end of the film his mother asks him, “why do you have to destroy everything that comes your way?”. In the end, Tony’s greed and want for the finer things in life ultimately loses him his family and friends, leaving him with nothing.

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Scarface’s representation of materialism is often excessive and in some cases, tacky. Yet the underlying reason for this is the lack of character held by Tony and his acquaintances. Tony and his associates often frequent at the Club Babylon, where he is surrounded by lavish people, clothing, décor and expense. However, whenever Tony entered the club, a piece of tacky, cheaply-produced pop music would play. This music only offered a quick rush with no lasting substance, similar to the character’s lives and their continuing drug habits. The extravagant and respectable exteriors of those surrounding Tony presented them to be prominent individuals. Yet, as Ryan Errington (2014) writes, “it all equated to a shallow existence leaving Tony and his acquaintances increasingly void of emotion.”

One topic that both Scarface and Wall Street explore is the importance of women, and their role in a man’s journey to success. Both films are alike in how they express this with Wall Street offering the knowledge that, “genetics, education and a good tailor” get you a woman and therefore gives you power; whereas Scarface says, “when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, you get the woman”. The message taken from this dialogue is that a woman is just another thing to gain on a man’s journey to the top and is just another part of this materialistic lifestyle and the American dream. Wall Street director Oliver Stone was quoted by Ronald Davis (1997) as saying, “money has become the sex of the eighties. Net worth equals self-worth.” This is supported in Wall Street when Gekko describes a receipt of $800,000 as “better than sex”. In Scarface, Tony Montana falls for and ends up marrying the wife of another wealthy drug lord, as if he has earned her and can therefore take her, but eventually becomes tired of her as he cares more about his net-worth than his own marriage.

The famous quote from Scarface, “don’t underestimate the other guys greed […] don’t get high on your own supply” is interesting and can be applied to both films. Both Wall Street and Scarface focus on the greed of individuals, but also their surrounding associates, and how there is no room or time for making friends in either business. “Your own supply” represents not only the drugs, but the money being made and used. This dialogue perfectly summarises the naivety that is seen in both films and can be seen as the two basic rules to follow to avoid becoming completely focused on the shallow and materialistic parts of life.

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