Greed is no good: how money movies have tackled the post-recession era

Have films been up to the job of reflecting changing public attitudes around greed and materialism since the financial crisis?

James Luxford
Updated:

Generation Wealth (2018)

Generation Wealth (2018)

Lauren Greenfield’s new film Generation Wealth is the result of a 25-year study of our obsession with wealth. Arriving in cinemas after opening this year’s Sundance film festival, it’s a movie about materialism that’s apt for a society still struggling with the way it perceives monetary success.

The financial crisis of 2008 affected most aspects of society, including the world of cinema. Financially, it changed the number and types of films made, but it also inspired filmmakers to tell different kinds of stories about the ongoing turbulence of this period.

Some showed the events of those chaotic weeks, others reflected the changing viewpoints of the public towards wealth and status. Great art has often been born from hardship, but what’s most interesting about the 10 years since the credit crunch is how that art has taken shape.

Margin Call (2011)

Margin Call (2011)

For some directors, portraying the events from within the industry afforded the opportunity to see the mindset of the financial sector at the sharp end. Take J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011), set in the early stages of the crisis, when we follow the employees of a Wall Street investment firm as they try to manoeuvre away from catastrophe.

A slick and confident debut feature, Margin Call condensed the complicated numbers into something more human. We see Kevin Spacey’s weary department head rally the troops for what he knows will be a lost cause, while we also get a glimpse into the life of Wall Street decadence, with Paul Bettany’s trader explaining to two wide-eyed analysts that “you learn to spend what’s in your pocket” – a glib metaphor for the thinking that drove them to this point.

The Big Short (2015)

The Big Short (2015)

Adam McKay’s The Big Short (2015) took a more lively approach, framing the crisis like a heist movie, with dull financial terms explained in colourful ways by celebrities like Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez. Approaching the crisis from various angles, it combines dark humour with an analysis of the types of minds that actually benefit from such disruption, such as Christian Bale’s eccentric hedge fund manager, dragging his investors out of danger, or Brad Pitt’s former manager, a man betting against the system out of spite.

Inside Job (2010)

Inside Job (2010)

There are also literal re-enactments in the form of documentaries like Inside Job (2010) and HBO’s Too Big to Fail (2011), intricate factual accounts that look inside the boardrooms and trading floors, looking for cause and blame. Whether dramatised or documented, these films aim for a similar goal – a kind of historical autopsy that picks apart events, looks for key players (or representations of them) and asks how such a thing can happen. The conclusions are often not pretty, pointing to the greed of the financial sector, but also to society’s own lending habits. They offer an entertaining look behind the headlines.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Another way real life has affected ‘reel life’ lies in our own vision of wealth. The “Greed Is Good” bombast of 80s culture, portrayed in stories such as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) has given way to a resentment of fortune. Look at The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Martin Scorsese’s portrayal of stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), set pre-crisis but with a mindset firmly post-crisis. The camera giddily follows Belfort through his life of excess, offering small but significant bookmarks that remind you this is a bad man who gets away with bad things. His eventual ‘punishment’ (three years in a minimum security prison) is a bitter punchline reminding us of the leniency towards white-collar crime.

Arbitrage (2012)

Arbitrage (2012)

The same tone is found in 2012’s Arbitrage, as Richard Gere’s hedge fund manager uses his intelligence to cover up various misdeeds, including manslaughter and financial malpractice. In one of Gere’s best performances, he’s at once compelling and repulsive, the smartest man in the room but one who has only ever used that intelligence for his own gain. Watching him is like watching a 21st-century Harry Lime – you’re unsure if you want to see him get away with it, then feel complicit when he does.

The Queen of Versailles (2012)

The Queen of Versailles (2012)

A lighter tone is taken with documentary The Queen of Versailles (2012). The previous feature by Generation Wealth director Lauren Greenfield, it pokes fun at the decadence of the Siegel family, whose lavish lifestyle (embodied by the construction of their house, a copy of the Palace of Versailles) is hindered by the 2008 crisis.

Cinematic schadenfreude is found in the ineptitude of the nouveau-riche Floridians, who struggle to maintain their house or pets as servants are laid off. It’s also a diatribe against the fleeting nature of financial success, where boasts rapidly turn to bitter laments.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

In uncertain times, cinema has often attempted to offer an answer. In the midst of the Second World War, Hollywood offered hope; post-Vietnam, it sought compassion for the damaged veteran. In the years following the financial crisis, it sought to make sense of an event that remained a mystery to many. It found faces behind the figures, and reflected a new attitude toward the 1%.

Even Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko, the braces-wearing antihero of Wall Street, came back in a darker role for the delayed sequel Money Never Sleeps (2013), in a film that reflected post-crisis thinking: that greed is no longer good, and its consequences are far-reaching. 

Watch the trailer for Generation Wealth

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