Wall Street Occupies Fordham
By Drew Carroll
Sunday, October 16, 5:00 p.m.
As protestors continued to rage against corporate greed by occupying the streets of downtown New York, a few miles uptown an audience is buzzing in Fordham Law School’s McNally Theatre. A large projection screen has faded to black at the end of the iconic 1980’s film that gave a face to corporate greed, Wall Street. While most movie audiences would be filing towards the doors by now, this one sits in hushed anticipation. The evening’s main attraction is yet to come, as Thane Rosenbaum, a professor at Fordham University School of Law and director of the Forum Film Festival, assures the gathering that his guest of honor is only moments away. With longish, flowing light hair, Professor Rosenbaum projects the image of ringmaster, a learned version of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka.
“Good movie,” he says, settling into his chair.
Oliver Stone remembers the way his stockbroker father did business. In those days, says Mr. Stone, it was about serving the client, providing him with the wealth to support a family. Mr. Stone sensed a different era taking shape in the 1980’s when he began working on Wall Street. Having just finished shooting a film about drug trafficking in Miami (Scarface), Mr. Stone was surprised to find that the cocaine culture had made its way to the rarefied world of Wall Street. The character Bud Fox, a young gun stockbroker who rides the wave to wealth but along the way becomes entangled in a devolving culture of drugs, sex, and money, was molded out of the lives of a new generation of stockbrokers coming of age in the eighties.
Just a few weeks prior to the release of Wall Street, Ivan Boesky, a titan of the time, was taken down for insider trading. Following Mr. Boesky’s arrest, high-profile perp walks became commonplace on Wall Street, eerily similar to the image of Bud Fox being led off his trading floor in handcuffs at the end of the film. An era of freewheeling corruption seemed to have peaked, and come to an end. Trading on insider information simply became too risky.
A decade later, another area of lax federal securities oversight would be exposed, with the spectacular failures of WorldCom and Enron. Then the Martha Stewart scandal, which was nothing more than a rehashing of old age Wall Street tactics, almost quaint in their simplicity. While the media was busy feeding daily images of Ms. Stewart’s walk up the courthouse steps (with complete fashion analysis), just a few blocks away a new age of corporate corruption was beginning to take shape on the upper floors of lower Manhattan. Weak federal regulation was paving the way for doomed mortgages being written across the country, which were then bundled together, graded AAA by a ratings agency and swapped between Wall Street hedge funds. The world didn’t wake up until the Dow began plummeting in October 2008, but Wall Street saw the crash coming from a mile away, and began betting against some of their investments.
Mr. Stone’s inspiration for the name “Gordon Gekko” dates back to his years serving in Vietnam where he remembers seeing these “reptilian, but also friendly” animals. That’s how Mr. Stone describes his ace character, which to Mr. Stone’s surprise, became an inspiration to many up and coming Wall Streeters, at the time, and even today. But, Mr. Stone admits, maybe he shouldn’t have been so surprised. Whether he was referring to movie audiences or American culture in general — or both — “We like gangsters, we like thugs,” he reflected.
Mr. Stone portrays Gekko as a master of the universe, controlling the markets and manipulating them in his favor. But the Gordon Gekko of 1987 was nothing more than a company buster who dabbled in insider trading as an income supplement. The latest meltdown on Wall Street exposed a level of systemic corruption that shocked the nation. Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, became a new purer form of Gordon Gekko, and this time, instead of an orange jumpsuit, there were bailouts. But while some in the business community may revere the new gangsters of Wall Street for the financial coup they pulled off, much of the rest of the world has reacted with anger spilling into rage.
The Occupy movement has taken up the mantra “We are the 99 percent!” But Oliver Stone, touched on that theme first, in a speech Gordon Gekko gives to his young protégé as they look out the window of a high-rise office tower at the financial world they control. “You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal,” says Gekko. Mr. Stone pointed the audience to the contrast between the life of the window washer he placed in the background to represent “the 99 percent,” and his main characters. Since Mr. Stone crafted that moment nearly 25 years ago income inequality has continued to widen, now reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression.
Washington D.C. is the “center of gridlock” according to Mr. Stone. “There should be 100,000 people in [occupying] D.C.” He had spent part of his day with the protestors at Occupy Wall Street, and believes the real problem is the mixture of money and politics.
Not a single arrest was made during the financial crisis in 2008. All the speculation and hedging going on was both not easily understood, and perfectly legal. Meanwhile, politicians from both sides of the aisle are flush with Wall Street cash in their campaign coffers. And money has only become more prominent in the American political system following the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which ruled that money is a form of speech and corporations are forms of people, so that money contributed by corporations to campaigns fall under the protection of the First Amendment.
While the ruling did not disturb the ban against direct contributions to candidates, corporations and unions may now donate unlimited amounts to political action committees, which will then be used to support various causes and candidates. The 2012 election cycle is expected to see the most money spent both directly and indirectly in campaign history, with much of it coming from Wall Street.
How to remedy the increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots?
Mr. Stone has an interesting suggestion: “Jamie Dimon should spend three weeks on a park bench.” This, says Mr. Stone, might help Wall Street empathize with the residents of Main Street, who are suffering. Reaction on Wall Street to the Occupy movement has been at best, bewilderment. Or, as Mr. Stone puts it, “They don’t give a shit.”
Mr. Stone’s 2010 version of Bud Fox, a young and entrepreneurial type played by Shia LaBeouf, asks his hedge fund boss Bretton James what his number is, how much it would take for him to walk away. True to how many people feel about the current class on Wall Street, Mr. James responds, “more.”