With The Wolf of Wall Street spurring debate about how it treats the corporate crimes of its lead character, we take a look at cinema’s ever-changing relationship to the moneyed elite and how it often mirrors the mindset of the times.
24 Jan 2014 - 4:37 PM  UPDATED 28 Feb 2014 - 11:33 AM

“Money is the barometer of a society's virtue” – Ayn Rand, 1957

It's no risk to suggest that The Wolf of Wall Street has upset a lot of people. The bloggosphere is tanked with rage and earnest dissertations out to prosecute Scorsese's picture for a multitude of sins; some cinematic, but mostly the outrage has been directed at the picture's, well, lack of virtue.

To hear Wolf's detractors tell it, the film, starring Leonardo Dicaprio and based on white-collar crim Jordan Belfort's bestseller and written by Terrence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), is a three-hour sex, money 'n' drugs orgy with no hangover, a celebration of an immoral louse that glamourises the kind of venal corporate culture that brought the world to the brink of complete financial collapse. Which is to say that in a post-GFC age, perhaps Wolf's biggest crime against moviegoers—apparently—is that it dares to be disliked. This is because it does little to soothe fears and affirm the conventional pieties; where goodness triumphs and the bad cop it.

Indeed, attitudising about money—the people who make heaps of it, its allure, its power and danger, its seemingly universal and necessary hold on the way we live —is a great tradition of the movies.

So what follows is a survey—incomplete, short and highly selective —that outlines the shifting relationship between money and movies over a century of cinema. I've eliminated union stories, gangster pics, film noir, and yarns where the power of the corporation is challenged by ordinary folk. Its modest aim is to explain the controversy and cries over Wolf as nothing new exactly, but part of a seemingly endless dialogue that holds that—on screen at least—money can only ever be both blessing and curse.

“The chief business of the American people is business”
– President Coolidge, 1925

Business scribe James Surowiecki argues that it's the populist impulse which determines the bottom line in Hollywood's relationship with cold hard cash and its captains. He reckons there's a simple one-to-one relationship between economic good times and just how much sympathy movies accord the Masters of the (Corporate) Universe. True, after the Wall Street crash of 1929, business was depicted in the movies as villain and its acolytes' treacherous operators out to betray all American Dreamers. Yet, it was Greed, a story of 'ordinary folk', that is for many historians the key film that anticipates the social despair of the Great Depression. Released to no box office and bad reviews in 1924, director Erich von Stroheim designed it as a 10-hour epic about a love triangle where the lust for money corrupts every facet of the trio's waking lives. It was taken from von Stroheim and reduced to 140-minutes and the director never forgave the bosses of MGM for what he felt was a public humiliation and the desecration of his masterwork.

“Well, it's no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want is to make a lot of money” – Bernstein (Everett Sloane) in Citizen Kane, 1941

The kings of capitalism build, innovate, and improve the quality of life argue Wall Street historians. In the movies, tycoons do all that—but they also want the world and your half too. And they pay for it dearly. Like Charles Foster Kane, played by Orson Welles in that director's 1941 classic Citizen Kane, or Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) in Paul Thomas Anderson's magnificent There Will Be Blood (2007, USA), success is but a violent, gothic psycho-opera where unchecked ambition is a form of madness and a fortune ultimately means nothing in the absence of love; power in all forms is equated with insanity.

“Only the man who does not need it, is fit to inherit wealth, the man who would make his fortune no matter where he started” – Ayn Rand, 1957

Atlas Shrugged, a 1200-page novel by one-time screenwriter Ayn Rand, was dubbed by the New York Times as the second most influential book in American Life in the past 60 years. (The Bible landed the #1 spot.) Published in 1957, it was the doorstopper of choice for Fortune 500 CEOs for decades to come. To save a world in recession, its hero calls for a strike against government interference. Rand, who founded a philosophy called Objectivism, said she “set out to show how desperately the world needs prime movers and how viciously it treats them” and to portray “what happens to a world without them”.

A trio of mid-'50s business films seemed to anticipate Rand, and offered a challenge to what Gore Vidal called the author's “immoral” certitude. These weren't out to offer procedural account of how big business actually works (few movies about money ever have) nor do they condemn the system that had created post-WWII prosperity. Instead, they delivered instructive tales of how best to balance domesticity and careerism.

Executive Suite (Robert Wise, 1954, USA), written by Ernest Lehman, and Patterns (Fielder Cook, 1956, USA), scripted by Rod Serling, weren't just thrilling talk-fests about boardroom backstabbing; they were, too, anguished cries for a more responsible, respectable and dignified corporate America in which good products equaled good capitalism—a value all could share in. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (Nunnally Johnson, 1956, USA) revisited this theme as an introverted melodrama where Gregory Peck ponders the cost of ambition on his mind, body, family and soul.

One of the great films of the '60s, La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960, Italy) continued this exploration of spiritual decay amongst society's upper crust (and made it look fab doing it).

Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987, USA) combined '50s idealism with a '80s love of lux and benefited from a timely plot about insider trading (and a release that coincided with the crash of '87.) Its nominal villain, Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko, became a pop hero mostly because Stone and co. ensures his moneyed life (if not his style) seem safe, even wholesome. Compare this to the chaos of Belfort's lot in Wolf; meanwhile, Rand is a poster girl for the Tea Party.

“You and I are such similar creatures Vivian. We both screw people for money” – Edward (Richard Gere) in Pretty Woman, 1990

Wall Street was typical of the have-it-both-ways attitude to cash in '80s American mainstream cinema where the tone turned facetious and facile. In The Big Chill (1983, Lawrence Kasdan, USA), success for thirty-something '60s idealists hasn't quite corrupted their conscience; they can feel good about feeling guilty about how much money they have. In Trading Places (John Landis, 1983, USA), money (and revenge) resolves issues of class and race. And in Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990, USA), money means, well, everything.

“Behind every great fortune is a crime” – Balzac, 1835*

The need to succeed breeds larceny in James Foley's sublime, frenzied, bitter adaptation of David Mamet's story of desperate salesmen, Glengarry Glen Ross (1990, USA), which illustrates the ancient maxim: we all get rich at someone else's expense, a sensibility that throbs like a gaping wound in '90s-set Wolf. Rogue Trader (James Dearden, 1999, UK) and Boiler Room (Ben Younger, 2000, USA), the latter a fictional gloss on Belfort now, seem like cinematic bellwether, cautionary tales of the kind of excess that one might believe led to the world financial calamity of 2007-08. The GFC survives in American cinema as subtext: Wolf, Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki, 2012, USA) or subject matter Margin Call (JC Chandor, 2011, USA).

Outside the US, the impact of the economic crisis has formed the basis for social-realist tales of moral reconstruction: The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Robert Guédiguian, 2011, France), Cosimo and Nicole (Francesco Amato, 2012, Italy), and Sister (Ursula Meier, 2012, Switzerland).

Still, The Entrepreneur (Giuliano Montaldo, 2011, Italy), Le Capital (Costa-Gavras, 2012, France), and A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013, Japan, China) offer a severe moral in bleak parables where the urge to earn leads inevitably to a human catastrophe of incalculable proportions.

There is a human tragedy at the centre of Wolf: Belfort and co.'s victims. These innocent 'suckers' lost their dough because they were sold on a dream everyone shares in only to find that it's fairy dust. Wolf's response to this crime is not an earnest declaration of outrage but a furious comic assault on the high priests of capital and their craven congregation; all of us, Wolf says, are splashing in the same cesspit of greed, eager to learn the secret of the 'sell'. This movie isn't made in the tradition of Wall Street, but Jerry Lewis, the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Saturday Night Live and hot-button topic bad taste comedies like Dr. Strangelove(Stanley Kubrick, 1964, UK) and Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961, USA). Everyone worships the dollar in Wolf and they all look stupid for it—and that insult seems pretty new in the cinema of money and the movies.

* This is the bowdlerised version. One credible French translation reads: “Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu'il a été proprement fait In English: “The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed.”