Oliver Stone was talking up his new film, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," at the SoHo Apple store in Manhattan when a questioner informed him that his wallet had fallen to the floor.
"You have a Wall Street eye," said Stone, drawing laughs from the packed auditorium.
The controversial filmmaker and the sequel to his Oscar-winning 1987 movie "Wall Street" appear to give a voice to the popular rage against Wall Street and the finance industry for the failings that led to the two-year-old economic collapse. "Money Never Sleeps" is one of a spate of films coming out that chronicle the excess and folly of those who pull the financial levers -- and who led the country into the deepest recession since the 1930s.
"It was a real heist," Stone told the crowd. "It's still outrageous." In fact, the movie world is banking on that outrage with a wave of documentaries and films examining the role of high finance in the global implosion. "Money Never Sleeps" opened Friday.
Another film, "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer," a documentary directed by Alex Gibney, explores the sex scandal that drove a New York governor out of office in 2008. Set for release Nov. 5, It is populated by the likes of fallen securities analyst Henry Blodget and the former chairman of American International Group, Maurice Greenberg.
In a nation of 14.9 million unemployed souls, as well as countless millions who have seen their retirement accounts decimated and their homes devalued, the films could tap into a captive audience.
"At a time when most Americans are barely holding on by their fingernails in terms of their homes, their jobs and their savings, the audacity of Wall Street in terms of its wealth, its prerequisites and political power is a source of extraordinary anger," said former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. In Stone, at least, Spitzer has found a defender. The former attorney general and governor was one of many insiders that Stone consulted for his latest movie.
"Eliot Spitzer was very helpful because he know the most about Goldman" Sachs, Stone said. "He knows their tricks... He investigated them. He also outed AIG. He's responsible for the fall of Maurice Greenberg as well as [former Citigroup Chairman Sanford] Weill. Spitzer was one of the last honest men who really did Wall Street in. If there were more Spitzers on the job, it wouldn't have happened like this."
Spitzer also plays a role in "Inside Job," a Charles Ferguson documentary narrated by Matt Damon. The films includes hard-hitting interviews with political leaders, academics and finance heavyweights such as former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker and Columbia Business School professor and ex-Fed governor Frederic Mishkin. . "Inside Job" will be released October 8th.
In another film, "Casino Jack," directed by George Hickenlooper, Kevin Spacey plays Jack Abramoff, the former businessman and lobbyist who was sentenced to federal prison for defrauding Indian tribes and contributing to official corruption. "Next to God, faith and country, nothing is more important than influence," said Spacey's character, as if summing up the mindset of the moneyed elite. "Casino Jack" opens in December.
"I don't know that any one of these movies individually is going to be a hit, but there is certainly a market for them," Reich said. "There's a tendency in the -- shall we call it quote-unquote -- establishment to minimize the degree of anger toward Wall Street, big business and Washington. I've never seen anything like it. It is real rage. It comes out of economic insecurity, fear, anxiety, frustration."
When "Wall Street" hit theaters 23 years ago, the stock market had suffered a devastating crash. Americans were enraged. Bankers swallowed up companies and gutted their assets. Businesses were shuttered and workers sent packing. Gordon Gekko, the archetypal villain played by Michael Douglas, epitomized the lust for money and power. "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good," he proclaimed.
Now, in the sequel, Gekko is back after a stint in a federal prison. No one meets the ruthless corporate raider at the prison gate. "Someone reminded me I once said, 'Greed is good,' now it seems it is legal, because everybody is drinking the same Kool-Aid," he says in the sequel.
"It's a different entire economy, way beyond anything I thought possible would happen in 1987," Stone told the crowd. "It's like a combination of Reagan, Clinton and Bush Jr. and Bush Sr. all kicked in over 30 ... years of deregulation and created this environment. It really is a systematic failure. The banks became what Gekko was."
At least one partner at a major Wall Street law firm, who asked not to be identified, said the sequel will not resonate as strongly as the first film among traders and bankers.
"Will it be a big earthquake on Wall Street? I don't think so," said the corporate lawyer. "My expectation is that for the most part, this will be a shoulder-shrugging affair on Wall Street. I say this not because I think the movies are going to be tame in their criticism, but because the criticism has been so loud and so direct and so persistent from our political classes, that this movie is like bringing water to the ocean."
The lawyer said Wall Streeters will see "Money Never Sleeps" purely for entertainment value, to catch the next installment of a cult classic in the industry. The message, however, is incidental and somewhat dated. "It's a year too late in a way," he said. "The politicians have beaten Oliver Stone to it."
Reich disagreed. "It would be too late if we were in vigorous recovery, if people saw their jobs coming back, if there was a great sigh of relief palpable in the public," said Reich, who is himself promoting his new book on the economy, "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future." "But that ain't the case. The devastation wrought by Wall Street is still very much a reality for most people. They're furious."
"Money Never Sleeps" is filled with parallels to the real crisis. There is a Bear Stearns-like bank named Keller Zabel that implodes. There are tense meetings of the country's top bankers at the New York Federal Reserve presided over by a Treasury Secretary named "Paul." Stone has said that Keller Zabel's founder is like Bear's Ace Greenberg or Lehman Brothers' Richard Fuld. The character Bretton James resembles JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. Nouriel "Dr. Doom" Roubini makes a cameo as Dr. Hashim.
Stone said that he and Douglas even consulted Samuel Waksal, the former chief executive of the biopharmaceutical company ImClone Systems, who was convicted of insider trading. Waksal is perhaps even more famous for his friend, Martha Stewart, who was convicted of lying to investigators about her sale of ImClone shares. "He advised Michael on what it was like to be in jail and what it's like to come out," Stone said of Waksal.
When an audience member at the SoHo Apple store expressed displeasure with Gekko's character at a time when millions of Americans have lost their jobs, Stone said: "No, this is not that movie." The movie director added, "The movie is essentially about trust and greed and betrayal and love… The movie, at its most basic level, is about money versus love."
Reich said it was wrong to view the popular rage as directed only against Wall Street or Washington.
"It's against power," he said. "The sense that many Americans have is that the dice are loaded and the game is rigged."