The book Liar’s Poker, written by Michael Lewis, and the motion picture Wall Street, directed by Oliver Stone, were seminal evocations of the greed that defined Lower Manhattan in the late 1980s. This year, both Lewis and Stone have revisited their early classics in an attempt to describe the recent economic collapse. Difference is, one of them appears as arrogant as the financiers he portrays. By KEVIN BLOOM.
Michael Lewis’s debut work of non-fiction Liar’s Poker, published in 1989 when the former bond salesman was a few months shy of his thirtieth birthday, instantly became a critical and commercial triumph. Punch magazine gushed: “An amazing book, readable, funny and mind-boggling… one of the great business books of all time.” The Sunday Times said: “Read all about it: headlong greed, inarticulate obscenity, Animal House horseplay.” The Financial Times advised its readers: “As traders would say, this book is a buy.” Over in America, where reviews had been equally as good, even the competing literati couldn’t praise it enough. “The funniest book about Wall Street I have ever read,” wrote Tom Wolfe, author of The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Along with Wolfe’s novel – which in 1990 was released as a movie starring Melanie Griffiths, Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks – and Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street, Liar’s Poker was a work of brutally honest representation that defined an era. Lewis, an art history major at Princeton, had broken into New York high finance after befriending the uncouth wives of a pair of Salomon Brothers executives at a banquet in London (hosted by the Queen Mother), and his tales of accidental wealth and all-out infantilism followed naturally from this bizarre encounter. Liar’s Poker detailed the “Law of the Jungle” – the unspoken truth that success on Wall Street depended on a person’s ability to find and exploit weakness, shout louder than his colleagues, and generally fleece the ignorant. Financial finesse and economic know-how, according to Lewis, didn’t count for much.
The same sentiment came through loud and clear in Stone’s Wall Street, where the mantra of the inimitable Gordon Gekko was repeated by banker and trader wannabes the world over. “Greed is good,” yelled Gekko (played by Michael Douglas, in what was inarguably his greatest role ever), and MBA candidates from Wharton to Wits heartily agreed. As with Liar’s Poker, the unintended consequence of the film was that instead of putting the planet’s best and brightest off a career on Wall Street, it made them that much keener to get started. Stone’s movie and Lewis’s book were immortalised as quintessential “how-to” manuals for the generation that came of age in the early 1990s.
And we all know what happened when this generation graduated from the trainee pool to find themselves in positions of unbridled financial power. The economy tanked again, the investor on Main Street lost his shirt, and the taxpayer footed the bill for the banker’s obscene bonus. The lessons of the Savings and Loans Scandal, which Lewis attributed in Liar’s Poker to the unequal balance between “sophisticated” New York financial firms and “naïve” small-town banks, remained willfully unlearned. In September 2008, greed was still good and the ignorant were still there to be fleeced.
But where Lewis has obviously succeeded in following through on the narratives of his earlier work, Stone, it appears, hasn’t. The Big Short, published in 2010, is Lewis’s attempt to “settle accounts” – he’d intended Liar’s Poker to be a cautionary tale, and because he’d winced at every fan letter from a Wall Street hopeful saying what an inspiration the book was, the opportunities granted by the events of 2008 were too good to pass up. This from The Big Short’s hardcover sleeve: “In this visceral tour to the heart of the money-making machine, Michael Lewis traces the origins of the crisis and introduces us to a new cast of compulsively fascinating characters. We meet the people who saw it coming, the people who were asleep at the wheel, and others who were actively driving us all off a cliff. Where did it all start? How could we have all been so deluded for quite so long? Did it really have to be this way? And who the hell can we blame? Michael Lewis has the answers.”
The Big Short is all that; Lewis does provide a host of persuasive and often downright convincing answers. It’s a great piece of narrative non-fiction from a man who, after he resigned from Salomon Brothers, became one of America’s great narrative non-fiction journalists (aside from his work for Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine, Lewis has published books on the Silicon Valley boom of the late 1990s, major league baseball, and fatherhood). In the week The Big Short was released it hit number one on Amazon.com, and as of July 2010 had spent 17 weeks on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. The Washington Post reviewer said, “If you read only one book about the causes of the recent financial crisis, let it be Michael Lewis's The Big Short.” The New York Review of Books observed, “[Lewis] untangles in depth the sources of the crisis in ways that none of the recent literature on the subject has matched.”
Stone’s Wall Street sequel – titled in full Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – hasn’t impressed the reviewers quite as much. It’s only fair to say that while I’ve read The Big Short I haven’t seen the movie (it was released in the US in late September, which means South Africa might get it before Christmas), but judging by the official feedback I won’t need to waste my time. Joe Morgensten of the Wall Street Journal wrote: “Mr. Douglas’s performance in the sequel measures up to Gekko’s rep, but the rest of the movie is pumped up to the bursting point with gasbag caricatures, overblown sermons and a semicoherent swirl of events surrounding the economy’s recent meltdown. The story certainly holds your attention, but it’s a dramatic bubble about a financial bubble.” David Edelstein of New York magazine opined: “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps might be the movie-TV crossover point, wherein the sequel to an influential eighties motion picture is so loaded with characters and crosscurrents that we wonder why it isn’t a thirteen-hour cable mini-series instead of an impacted two-hour mess. The film is like my portfolio: full of promise, with minuscule returns.”
The glaring question left is why did Lewis get it so right when Stone, it appears, got it so wrong? A viable answer may be encapsulated in one of the seven deadly sins: hubris. Stone won an Academy Award for Platoon, which appeared the year before Wall Street came out, and another for Born on the Fourth of July, which appeared two years after; in the decades since he’s been feted and celebrated, and was even described by the Guardian as "one of the few committed men of the left working in mainstream American cinema”. Such accolades have conceivably gone to his head. Why else would he refuse to interview Hugo Chavez’s opponents for his 2010 documentary South of the Border? And what else could explain the recent controversy surrounding statements made to the UK Sunday Times, where he sounded remarkably like Mel Gibson?
Gauchely attempting to explain why his forthcoming 10-part television series Secret History of America will be a re-examination of Hitler’s rise to power, Stone told the Sunday Times: "Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than the Jewish people." Asked by the reporter why there was then such a focus on the Holocaust, he said: "The Jewish domination of the media."
Where Wall Street is concerned, these are the words of a man as overblown and prideful as the bankers and financiers that were responsible for the recent economic collapse. I’d rather take my lessons from Lewis, a man who’s put the story before himself, and I hope my financial advisor (if he’s reading this) does the same – to you, mate, and you know who you are, I realise I can’t ask you to forego the commission you’ve made on losing my money, but I can ask you not to wear such offensively expensive eau de cologne. DM
Read more: Review of The Big Short in Washington Post, Review of The Big Short in New York Review of Books, Compendium of reviews for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Oliver Stone returns to Wall Street, in The Independent.
Watch: Trailer for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.