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Hollywood’s sordid love story with greed and capitalism

Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in 1987 film Wall Street.

Movie Still

In that endlessly fascinating alternative movie universe of might-have-beens, there's a version of Wall Street featuring Richard Gere as Gordon Gekko.

Before handing the role of the ruthless, red-suspendered corporate raider to Michael Douglas, it's said that writer-director Oliver Stone had his eye on Gere. Given that Gere is currently on display as a corporate shark in Arbitrage, another Wall Street-set cautionary fable of high financial malfeasance, we can imagine just how different Stone's movie might have been with this actor in the role: a stealthier Gekko than was Michael Douglas, less overtly evil and greedy, a killer with a razor instead of a club. When Douglas delivers that signature sermon about the goodness of greed, it's like a stump speech for a corrupt presidential candidate. Coming from Gere's mouth, it would probably have played like a calming melody – and invitation to come to bed.

Either way, the greed-is-good credo is not only irresistible, it cuts to the very essence of Hollywood's historically ambivalent relationship to people who will do anything in order to bed down richer at night than they were in the morning, no matter how rich they already are. These are people for whom enough is never enough, and who are both terrifying and fascinating because they embody the most primal and dangerous of unchecked appetites: They're greedy bastards.

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And where would movies be without them? Take the greedy bastard out of Hollywood and you're left without Citizen Kane, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, It's A Wonderful Life, Sweet Smell of Success, The Godfather I & II, Chinatown, There Will Be Blood. You cut the horsepower out from under the western, with its outlaws, railroad tycoons, land grabbers and bushwhackers; and you render the crime movie utterly redundant. For all its legendary truck in happily-ever-after, at least half of Hollywood's heart is dark.

Don't forget that Hollywood itself was founded on financial desperation: The first film studios opened there in order to escape the movie-patent wars strangling the new medium in the east, and southern California provided the perfect climate, geographical variety and cheap labour ideal for picture-making: You could spend a lot less there and make a lot more. Once that bonanza was struck, there was no stopping the boom; the state's second great gold rush in less than a century was on.

Very quickly, it became apparent that movies could not only make you very rich but very famous. Hollywood movies themselves became synonymous with glamour, luxury and the fulfilment of the American Dream. But there was a catch – one that's proven every bit as persistent as the medium itself. To appeal to the greatest number of willing spenders, Hollywood had to tell stories that appeal to the commonest of Americans, and the vast majority of these folk weren't rich, didn't live in California, and relished certain myths of decency and high moral fibre. They needed to see their own lives and values reinforced. Which meant that if somebody was going to be rich and greedy, they had to pay. Only then could we walk back out onto the street and resume our own comparatively meagre lives.

This is why Charles Foster Kane had to wind up with everything and nothing: alone, unhappy and utterly bankrupt in spirit. This is why Humphrey Bogart's Fred C. Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre floats dead in a Mexican watering hole, Michael Corleone broods among dying trees at the end of The Godfather Part II, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood has only a dead body for company in his personal bowling alley. Gordon Gekko goes to jail at the end of the original Wall Street, and Gere's hedge-fund tycoon Robert Miller is condemned to live with his self-knowledge at the finale of Arbitrage. Greed is good only if someone pays for it.

Hollywood has two histories: One is the history of our dreams, fantasies and ideals embodied, as the world's greatest factory of the imagination. The other is the history of modern capitalism itself, for Hollywood wrote the book in such essentials of modern economics as monopolism, vertical integration, franchising, branding, recycling, globalization and the crushing of all competitors. It says something about our own divided souls that they're so often segregated.

When Walter Huston, playing the wily prospector in Sierra Madre, spoke the words "I know what gold does to men's souls," he spoke not only from personal experience. He was also speaking for the glittering empire that created him.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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