Oliver Stone’s Wall Street gave us the iconic, and chronically misused, aphorism “greed is good,” but the movies generally love to show us the opposite.
History is positively lousy with movies in which avaricious characters get what’s coming to them — whose greed is punished, in one way or another.
Real life tends to be much more complicated. American capitalism is particularly well-suited to funelling money from the poor to the already very rich, who then set aside a statistically insignificant amount of that wealth to lobby politicians to pass advantageous tax laws, crush pesky regulations, and smash the unions that might give working-class types more leverage. If greed isn’t good, it certainly seems lucrative. I suppose we can hope that they at least feel a little bit bad about it while soaking in bathtubs full of Dom Pérignon and wiping their butts with Prada bags (I don’t know any rich people; I assume this is what they do).
As Citizen Kane’s Mr. Bernstein put it so succinctly: “…it’s no trick to make a lot of money…if all you want to do is make a lot of money.” Perhaps we can take some comfort in the fact that having a lot of money doesn’t make one particularly interesting. So here’s a sampling of some of the best movies about greed’s power to corrupt the human soul (in a metaphorical sense).
Double Indemnity (1948)
The entire genre of film noir exists to remind us greed will always bite you in the arse. During Hollywood’s golden age, the (technically voluntary) Motion Picture Production Code dictated that crime in movies could never go unpunished, leading filmmakers to make a virtue of that particular limitation by plumping the depths of the heart of darkness and making protagonists out of characters who might otherwise be villains. We know they’re doomed from the beginning — we just don’t know how, or how they’ll try to wriggle out of it.
Millions aren’t on the line in Double Indemnity, which makes it all the more interesting. Barbara Stanwyck plays Phyllis Dietrichson, who takes out a life insurance policy on her husband with the help of hesitant, horny, and ultimately unscrupulous insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). She’s after just $US50,000 ($69,410), he’s mostly just looking to get laid, and the conclusion makes clear that two people with such flippant motives for murder should never trust each other.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
“Only one thing counts in this life…” says Blake (Alec Baldwin), a morally bankrupt real estate broker for whom the virtue of being able to convince a prospect to sign on the dotted line — even if it goes against their best interests — is an all-consuming virtue. Early on in this David Mamet-written classic, Blakes makes clear to a rather pitiful group of salesmen that only two of them will survive an upcoming round of staff cuts, and that their only hope to remain employed is to use any means possible to cut out their co-workers and sell questionable properties to clients who probably can’t afford what they’re buying. Presented as a microcosm of America-style capitalism, Glengarry Glen Ross makes clear that we’re all living inside of a pyramid scheme: a small handful of people at the top make money by manipulating everyone down the line into screwing everyone else. By the end, dogs have eaten dogs, and no one has benefitted except the guys at the top.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Coming from modest means, but made heir to an unexpected fortune, Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane (based loosely on real-life publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst) sets out to be a different type of American millionaire. At 25, he opens a newspaper, promising to adhere to a public statement of high-minded principles. As we chart the course of Kane’s life, though, we see the slow, inexorable influence of money and power on even the most well-intentioned man. He can have anything, and does — gathering a parade of sexual partners and sycophants along the way — but it’s never enough. Real friends, once trusted to tell him the truth, begin to feel like annoying hinderances to getting his way. There’s no grand comeuppance for Kane, just the quiet realisation that none of it brought him any more happiness than a childhood toy. The slow decline from youthful idealism into cynicism and joyless accumulation plays as Shakespearean tragedy, minus the usual bloodletting.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Two quintessential filmic portraits of American-style greed: Citizen Kane tells the story of a character whose rise in wealth tracks with the loss of his soul, while There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is something different: a man who never had a soul to lose. Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece is among the darkest, and most chillingly cynical portraits of greed ever made. It doesn’t speak of the corrupting power of avarice, but suggests that for some of us, wealth has nothing to corrupt. Is desire to devour everything in sight inherent in humanity — less a matter of right or wrong than a force of nature? It would explain an awful lot.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
He’s no Daniel Plainview, but Humphrey Bogart once described his Sierra Madre character as “…the worst shit you ever saw,” and he wasn’t wrong. He begins the movie by beating his boss (who could be said to have it coming) nearly to death, and ends it with a murder. In-between, the iconic Fred C. Dobbs heads into his own heart of darkness on a quest for the titular fortune, realising along the way that he’s capable of much worse deeds than he’d ever believed as he does anything and everything to keep his share of a hoard of Mexican gold, and then to add to it. As another character suggests, getting the gold isn’t particularly tough — it’s keeping it that’s the real test.
Wall Street (1987)
As written and played, Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko is an electrifying, but ultimately one-note villain. To anyone paying attention, there’s little redeeming about the character, and the film’s morality (hard work and honesty versus quick-buck cleverness) is overly simple. Still, the stock trader and corporate raider (a composite of several real-life figures, many of whom wound up in prison) became, to many, an unlikely folk hero and symbol not of ‘80s excess but of the decade’s fast-paced allure. The iconic “greed is good” line is, not infrequently, quoted out of context and without irony, which speaks to the allure of money at least as eloquently as the film itself.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Martin Scorsese doesn’t let us off the hook as viewers: this is a long movie about utterly atrocious people who are all wildly compelling. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the real-life Jordan Belfort, who specialised in inflating the prices of worthless stocks, selling them off, and counting his money after investors lost everything. Here, he and his cohorts bounce from one money-making scheme to another, and there comes a point at which we’re nearly cheering for them to succeed in yet another close-call misadventure. It’s all sleight-of-hand, though: separating suckers from their money is at the very heart of American capitalism, and by making doing so look so glamorous, Scorsese and company offer the uncomfortable suggestion that none of us are as above corruption as we might think.
New Jack City (1991)
In director Mario Van Peebles’ crime classic, Wesley Snipes plays Nino Brown, an up-and-coming drug kingpin in New York City. There’s nothing particularly redeeming about Nino: he’s greed personified; having turned an entire apartment complex into his own crack house, he’s perfectly content to watch as lives are destroyed in his community, if only because it puts money in his pocket. It’s in making that toll explicit that the movie succeeds most powerfully, leading to a bold and justifiably controversial ending that suggests the law will never go quite far enough in dealing with people like Nino, leaving justice up to the people.
The Social Network (2010)
Time hasn’t been kind to David Fincher’s portrait of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. As played by Jesse Eisenberg, Zuckerberg is an awkward, egocentric genius who doesn’t seem to have a ton of interest in money, but is still perfectly happy to rip off the ideas of others as long as it feeds his own megalomaniacal goals. It once seemed searing, but that was in 2010, before Facebook became the all-powerful global network is today, and before Zuckerberg was one of the richest people in human history, with the power to sway elections and rewrite reality via algorithm.
A Simple Plan (1998)
This underrated Sam Raimi neo-noir doesn’t waste much time in laying out its conflict: Bill Paxton plays hardworking Minnesota family man Hank Mitchell, who explains clearly and with seeming sincerity that the American Dream comes from work, not theft…a philosophy that falls apart as soon as he’s given a shot at stealing millions of dollars from a downed plane. As with the best noir, it’s a story of greed compounded by bad decisions and plain bad luck — but it’s all very nearly relatable. If I found a life-changing amount of money and reasonably believed that it could be mine if I just kept my mouth shut, I can’t say I wouldn’t be tempted. Life has a mixed track record when it comes to rewarding or punishing that sort of thing, but movie morality tends to be more clear-cut, and it’s not spoiling much to say that this particular cache of found money would have been better left where it landed.