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Scott Larson

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Greed is good (for the box office)

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Frankly, I think everybody is being way too hard on those poor Enron executives.

Okay, maybe “poor” isn’t the best word I could have chosen to describe these guys. But we need to look at this so-called “scandal” in context. Remember that just a short time ago we were in a go-go booming economy, where lots of ordinary investors were quite happily throwing their life savings into shares of companies that not only had never had any profits but had no prospect of profits in any foreseeable future. And people were thrilled to be getting a hold of these stocks. So, by comparison, Enron wasn’t doing so badly because, unlike all those “dot coms,” they had at least the appearance of profits. How come we aren’t seeing congressional hearings on Pets.Com?

Wait a minute! I know! It’s because not even an idiot could expect to get any sympathy for investing in a company that was actually reporting the fact that it had no profits. Let’s face it, Enron investors were duped by people who were deliberately (I know there’s a fancy accounting term for this, but I forget what it is) lying. I get it now.

(In a related matter, I would like to announce that I have contracted with Arthur Andersen to audit the number of hits I get on this web site. I am pleased to further report that I have had 5 billion hits in just the past hour.)

As with any major cultural event, I have been listening for movie references in the unfolding Enron saga. I sort of heard one last week during a congressional hearing. (I’m glad that Congress is looking into this. If any institution has the necessary experience with creative accounting techniques to spot something fishy, it’s the people who handle the government’s money.) A film clip was shown of former Enron CEO Jeffrey K. Skilling at some meeting or conference joking about the electricity supply crisis that California experienced last summer. His punch line went something like this: At least the Titanic went down with the lights on. This prompted one of the outraged inquisitors to respond with something like: On the Titanic the captain went down with the ship. At Enron the captain grabbed a bunch of loot, climbed into the first lifeboat with his cronies and yelled back to the passengers that everything was going to be fine.

Okay, I know that the sinking of the Titanic was an actual event. But it has also been the subject of several movies, notably James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster. That’s all the connection I need to make this a movie topic.

While we are waiting for the inevitable television movies-of-the-week about the Enron debacle, it is interesting to reflect on how the world of big business and high finance has been portrayed by Hollywood over the years. Generally, the movies haven’t been kind to economic wheeler-dealers. Wealthy men have frequently been villains in flicks over the years, whether it was Orson Welles’s thinly veiled portrait of William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane or Lionel Barrymore’s portrayal of the evil Mr. Potter in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. And films that deal specifically with stockbrokers and Wall Street are inevitably morality plays, warning about the evils of greed.

(Incidentally, the congressional inquisitors shouldn’t get too smug either. Just about every movie that portrays congressional proceedings—from Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to The Majestic—invariably portrays the chairmen of hearings as, at worst, venal zealots or, at best, a lackeys of corrupt power brokers.)

The best example of Hollywood’s moral judgment of Wall Street, of course, is Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, Wall Street, in which Michael Douglas as the unprincipled millionaire stockbroker Gordon Gekko exhorts that greed is good. This film is something of a classic, partly because of Douglas’s performance but mostly because its theme coincided perfectly with a time when it seemed as though there was no limit to the amounts that speculators could amass for leveraged buyouts and companies seemed to be devouring each other like cannibalistic piranha. Even better than Stone’s movie, though, was Glenn Jordan’s 1993 made-for-cable movie Barbarians at the Gates, which chronicled the leveraged buyout of RJR-Nabisco in the 1980s. This movie was downright entertaining, thanks to Larry Gelbart’s writing and a wonderful cast headed by James Garner. Much of the enjoyment came from the fact that we knew that its many preposterous plot twists were all true.

Other Hollywood forays into tales of high finance haven’t been nearly so distinguished. The 1981 film Rollover by Alan J. Pakula seemed more like an Oliver Stone movie than did Stone’s Wall Street. Jane Fonda played a petrochemical heiress who, with the help of banker-troubleshooter Kris Kristofferson, uncovered all sorts of convoluted banking conspiracies. It was as though Pakula was trying to do for high finance what 1979’s The China Syndrome had done for nuclear power plants.

More recently, Ben Younger made a film called Boiler Room. It is a testament to the fact that people writing for newspapers (except, hopefully, those writing for their paper’s business section or, perhaps, The Wall Street Journal) understand anything at all about investing that I read more than one film review by a prominent national newspaper that described this movie as an “exposé of day traders.” The film has nothing to do with day trading. It was about a brokerage set up as a scam to defraud unwary investors of their money. Not entirely unlike what the management at Enron was doing. In the end, the film was essentially a quasi-remake of Wall Street, even directly quoting Michael Douglas’s “greed is good” speech.

At the end of the day, I suppose Hollywood is the only place in the world where business people will attempt to make huge amounts of money by creating a product that attempts to teach people that there is something morally empty and corrupt about people trying to make huge amounts of money.

-S.L., 7 March 2002

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