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As much as money makes the world go round, it also spurs on the cogs of imagination for countless screenwriters, whose work has graced the silver screen. It is fertile ground, and the reasons for its popularity as movie-making subject matter are three-fold: universality, thematic possibilities, and dramatic performance.

Money means something to everybody  whether you have some or none, are wealthy or are struggling, are financially competent or fiscally irresponsible. We all need it, in some way or other, in order to survive – and that makes stories about money universal. But, the beauty of the universality of money is that, as a narrative premise, it opens the door for any number of thematic possibilities. Once money has been established as the basic, universal component of the plot, the tale can begin to feature anything from corruption and murder to family drama and coming of age  because the audience is already hooked in, and along for the ride.

Boiler Room (2000)
Boiler Room

Written and directed by Ben Younger, Boiler Room has the benefit of being inspired by the filmmaker’s own time with a brokerage firm – during which he interviewed various colleagues – as well as the stories he was hearing at the time about Oakmont Stratton, of The Wolf Of Wall Street fame. This basis in reality gives the film a difficult, uncomfortable feel – as the ugly truth of the finance industry is laid bare.

It boasts a notable cast, featuring Giovanni Ribisi, Nia Long, Vin Diesel, Ben Affleck, Nicky Katt, Scott Caan, Tom Everett Scott, Ron Rifkin and Jamie Kennedy, and puts each of them to good use in dramatic scenes that are sometimes reminiscent of 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross. The plot of Boiler Room centres on a morally compromised young man, who seeks redemption by bringing down the brokerage firm he works for, after observing questionable practices. The lead role of Seth is played by Giovanni Ribisi, who begins the film running an illegal casino from his apartment, and ends the film having destroyed a corporation for the greater good.

Boiler Room 
is, above all else, efficient, and the wider cast create such a compelling narrative that the central role almost disappears – becoming a lens through which we can observe the truth of this industry for ourselves. This almost voyeuristic detachment reflects the distant attitude the brokers apparently have toward their ‘clients’ – which arguably adds to the issues created.

The Company Men (2010)
the_company_men

Effectively a distant cousin of 2009’s Up In The Air, the directorial debut of writer-producer John Wells explores employment woes amid financial crisis – focusing on the stock manipulation of one corporate chief, at the expense of his employees. Craig T. Nelson plays the corporate chief in question, and he is downsizing his previously successful shipping company, while reaping the financial benefit of the resulting increase in stock value.

Among those at the sharp end is Bobby Walker, played by Ben Affleck. Having created a more then comfortable life for himself, his wife and children as a result of his large salary, the loss of his job at the shipping company leaves him taking manual labour jobs from his brother-in-law (Kevin Costner), and selling his house. Meanwhile, the second-in-command at the shipping company, Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to argue the case for keeping senior manager Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) in his post – but both are fired, and Woodward takes his own life.

Despite the loss of his job, McClary continues to benefit from the increase in stock prices at the shipping company, and uses the money to attempt to assuage his guilt. He starts his own company, and hires many of those fired from the shipping company – including Walker.

Wall Street (1987)

Inspired by his father’s brokerage career, Oliver Stone made Wall Street – which quickly became the definitive film on the subject of financial corruption, thanks to an iconic, Academy Award-winning performance by Michael Douglas.

The story of a young man’s ambition, and the ways in which he and his mentor manipulate each other, resonated with international audiences, as the narrative employed the money-based premise to explore father-son relationships, and the nature of ‘The American Dream.’

American Psycho (2000)

Using the novel of the same name, by Bret Easton Ellis, as source material, writer-director Mary Harron and her co-writer Guinevere Turner deliver a sharply observed satire on the modern consumerist life, set against the backdrop of the stock exchange. Set in the Manhattan of 1987, the film stars Christian Bale as an investment banker with apparent psychopathic tendencies, and a pattern of homicidal behaviour.

Bateman is less than enamoured of the shallow personalities that clutter up his inner-circle, while seeming to be a shallow personality himself. He murders a colleague (Jared Leto) whose business card is better than his, and employs the services of prostitutes – some of whom he abuses, and some of whom he brutally murders. He works hard to maintain his perfect fa├žade, however – providing himself with the kind of lavish lifestyle he likes, and that also meets the expectations of his fiancee, Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon). All the while, Bateman is subtly pursued by a persistent police detective (Willem Dafoe).

While the film caused controversy due to its depictions of extreme violence, it is a scathing commentary on our willingness to create a permissive atmosphere and, conversely, our reluctance to see the ugly truth, when it is presented in a package of perceived perfection and success.

Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995)
die-hard-with-a-vengeance-original (4)

In the third instalment of the popular Die Hard franchise, director John McTiernan has the iconic character of John McClane face down a giant Wall Street heist, designed to leave world financial markets collapsing, while presenting a more intimate tale of revenge, and redemption. The film takes elements of an epic chase, and combines them with the idea of urban terrorism, to deliver a thrilling action movie for the ages.

A bomb detonates in a New York department store, sending the city’s emergency services into a tailspin. The culprit calls the police and identifies himself as “Simon” – demanding that John McClane (Bruce Willis) be reinstated to the police force after a suspension, and be put in contact with the criminal.

Trading Places (1983)
Trading-Places

This popular comedy – directed by John Landis, and written by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod – takes the grand canvas of the stock market, and paints an elaborate vista of social hierarchy, revenge and redemption, as two men play with the lives of another two men, and everyone gets what is coming to them.

Two successful commodities brokers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) make a wager based on their opposing views about the ‘nature versus nurture’ philosophical debate. They proceed to conduct a live experiment, wherein they manipulate the aftermath of a chance encounter between their own, wealthy employee, Louis (Dan Ackroyd), and a homeless man – Billy (Eddie Murphy).

The experiment sees the two subjects effectively switch places in their manufactured social hierarchy, but when Billy overhears the details of the plan, the two men plot to bring their manipulators down. They achieve this by uncovering a plan the brokers have for insider trading, and use the information to bankrupt the pair, while simultaneously generating vast profit for themselves. The two pairs of men thus ‘trade places.’

The Pursuit Of Happyness (2006)
Pursuit-of-Happyness

Starring Will and Jaden Smith, The Pursuit Of Happyness is based on the memoir of Chris Gardner, who struggled against social and financial adversity, to build a secure life for himself and his son. With Gabriele Muccino in the director’s chair, the story was written for the screen by Steven Conrad, and focuses on Gardner’s journey from homelessness to professional success.
Gardner (Will Smith) is a salesman, with a wife who works as a maid (Thandie Newton), and a five year old son (Jaden Smith), but he clashes with his spouse after having invested his life savings in portable bone density scanners. Events conspire against him, and his sales business flounders – creating financial insecurity for the family and resulting in the departure of his wife – who leaves their son with Gardner.

In the ensuing months, the newly single father faces prosecution for unpaid parking tickets, the garnishing of his bank accounts for unpaid income taxes, and ultimately, eviction. He has the opportunity of a six-month unpaid internship with a brokerage firm – with the possibility of a broker position at the end of it, however, and takes the leap. Taking it on, despite his financial situation, Gardner and his son survive the six months, and celebrate his success when he eventually earns the full-time job as a broker.

The extraordinary story that plays out against the backdrop of investment and stock trading is unusual in the genre, since it is not based in the financial corruption of the investment industry, but rather the moral corruption of society. The ease with which a family can find themselves with nothing in the modern world is a disturbing reality to be confronted with – while the determination to find solutions in the face of such adversity is inspirational.

The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013)
The Wolf of Wall Street

Though it was considered controversial and divisive upon release, the fact of the matter is that The Wolf Of Wall Street drew ire from some quarters because, in adapting the memoir of the same name by convicted fraudster Jordan Belfort, director Martin Scorsese and writer Terence Winter held a giant mirror up to society as a whole and forced us to look at our own failings – and the ways in which we fail each other.

The story is a terrible one – made all the more horrifying because it is a work of non-fiction. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) rises from inexperienced stockbroker, to the driving force behind Stratton Oakmont – one of the most successful brokerage firms to operate. Profiting from ‘pump and dump’ scams, Belfort and his employees take the addictive aspects of stockbroker culture, and amplify them to the extreme – creating a hedonistic environment that propels his staff to even greater breaches of law and ethics.

The issues with the story are based in the sheer disbelief that such a situation could legitimately develop, and that such an individual could be dealt with by the legal system in a way that seems to be unduly lenient. However, the point made is that the situation in this narrative is very real, and that the society we live in allowed it to flourish. It is the uncomfortable acknowledgement of the fact that we all, literally, buy in to a system that enables such corruption, and makes us all complicit in the ruination of our fellow citizens.

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