10/14/2009 09:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A glimpse of the future from 1987

Every so often, you get a window into the past - and realize that it offered you a picture of the future. Only you didn't realize it at the time.

My little epiphany happened a couple of weeks ago, when I noticed signs at my local train station - I live in Ossining, NY - indicating that a movie was filming there. It didn't take long to figure out that the "WS2" on the signs meant Wall Street 2. That sent me to my local video store - the only one left in town - to rent their scuffed-up VHS copy of the 1987 original, which I hadn't watched since it first came out. Which showed me that Oliver Stone's film essentially foretold the 2008 near-collapse of the economy.

Watching Wall Street offered a fascinating look at the end of the Reagan years, those go-go '80s I think of as the Greed Decade (and not just because of Michael Douglas' famous line in Wall Street). The now-discredited theory of trickle-down economics was still in full bloom, though by the time Wall Street reached theaters at the end of 1987, the markets had been through an October crash that shocked everyone (though apparently not enough to learn from it).

And here came Oliver Stone with Wall Street and his character, Gordon Gekko, the hair-gelled, power-tie-wearing financial carnivore, played to cocky perfection by Douglas (who won his acting Oscar for the role). In his crucial speech near the end of the film, when protégé Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) starts to get cold feet, Gekko tells him:

"The richest 1 percent of this country owns half our country's wealth, five trillion dollars. One-third of that comes from hard work; two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do: stock and real-estate speculation. It's bullshit. You got 90 percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you're not naive enough to think we're living in a democracy, are you buddy? It's the free market. And you're a part of it."

It's the same message that Michael Moore is offering in his film, Capitalism: A Love Story, except Moore is bemoaning, not celebrating, these ideas.

That speech was overlooked at the time because people were so enamored of the more sound-bite-friendly line, "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good." As Douglas was prepping for Wall Street 2, he told interviewers that financial types regularly come up to him and tell him that his famous line inspired them to become corporate assholes like Gekko - thus missing the point of the film.

But it's that other speech that nails it.


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