While Money Never Sleeps ostensibly takes place amidst the cutthroat world of high finance, the real theme of the film is fathers - failed fathers, surrogate fathers, would-be fathers, the fathers of Wall Street - and the guilt they often carry. It is also about the struggle for success and how often we are muddled about how to talk about it, define it and live with it.
Upon leaving prison, Gordon Gekko sets out to frame the time that he has left through two goals. He wants to reestablish a relationship with his now grown but estranged daughter and get back into the "game" of manipulating money, companies and people, the other part of his life that once provided meaning. While Gekko has already lost his son through a drug overdose while he was in prison, he is still not clear about which of his goals takes priority. He is, so to speak, emotionally over-leveraged. Jake Moore, an ambitious Wall Street investment banker, complicates matters as he is living with and plans to marry Gekko's daughter Winnie.
Sigmund Freud wrote a paper in 1916 titled 'Those Wrecked by Success,' the product of his clinical work with patients who fell ill "upon fulfillment of a wish and put an end to all enjoyment of it." Freud wrestled with the implications of desire - the ways in which guilt can surface at the most unexpected times, turning the anticipated satisfaction of achievement into symptoms.
The four main protagonists of the film - Gekko, Jake, Winnie and Bretton James (a contemporary version of Gekko's younger self) can't seem to succeed without also failing. If Gekko goes back to his old ways he loses his daughter. When Jake focuses too much on succeeding he loses Winnie. Winnie can't seem to distinguish between her father and Jake, even though she has agreed to marry him. And Bretton James, who runs a top investment bank and has Goya's Saturn Devouring His Children (a painting representing in part an uncontrollable appetite) on his office wall, is so hypnotized by his pursuit of success that he can only answer "more" when asked by Jake what his monetary end-game is.
In analytic terms the characters are compulsives, determined to act out repetitive patterns that they are not aware of. Freud, who also wrote about repetition compulsions, outlined not so much the cliche that if we don't remember our (unconscious) past we are condemned to repeat it, but rather that we often lack the ability to remember in ways that are healthy - or at least in ways that allow us to develop a different vocabulary when talking about ourselves. It is pretty clear to Director Oliver Stone that this compulsion to repeat can paralyze not only individuals but a whole society. If, as the British psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips suggests, the task of psychotherapy is to turn personal pain and crisis into meaning, then something similar can be said about an economic and social crisis. Politics is partly about who wins the battle of providing that meaning.
For Phillips, a breakdown can often be the precursor of a breakthrough, where previously repressed questions find their way to the surface. Some people go "insane" while others develop healthier ways of living. Applied to a society - our society - we face the same question. Will the most recent failure of capitalism - not crisis of greed - presage a further repetition and breakdown or a different way of talking about and debating what we want to be successful at? If, as Jon Stewart suggests, the Tea Party is an insane wing of our social life, then who represents the healthy political patient who is confronting the dirty and repressed secrets of poverty and inequality? Can we, in other words, fail in a way that is more productive because we actually learn something from it?
Stone, through the film's narrator, repeatedly invokes the word "insanity" to describe engaging in the same behavior but expecting a different result. The content of the film's economic message is not bad. During a talk at what looks to be a college, the fawning students cheer Gekko, now a celebrity criminal, when he channels historian Kevin Phillips to the effect that our country's economy has gone from manufacturing products to packaging and selling arcane financial instruments. Collateralized Debt Obligations anyone? We have a "disease" he says, that is "systemic and global." But the virtue of Kevin Phillip's book Bad Money is that he actually names the system - "global capitalism" - that organizes a large part of our lives and structures the logic of Wall Street. Stone, on the other had, lets Gekko get away with propounding the supposedly universal principle that the key drivers of human behavior are greed and envy. Greed is not good if it is used to explain too much, to reduce a historically contingent economic system to individual psychology. In fact greed is not an emotion that the vast majority of Americans have the ability to either experience or act upon. Most people are merely trying to survive.
Money Never Sleeps lacks what C. Wright Mills called a "sociological imagination," the analytical ability to describe "the problems of history, the problems of biography, and the problems of social structure in which biography and history intersect." What Stone does show us is that in the tortured logic of Wall Street, a person or company can only succeed when another person or company is failing. The appropriate analogy is Las Vegas.
Fathers disappear, are taken away, are thrown out or kill themselves. They also attempt to devour their children. But they also keep coming back to ask forgiveness and to reclaim their rightful place in the social and familial order. Wall Street is, after all, a very high end boys club. The movie implies that one of the only places of repose from the viciousness of economic life is the family - that haven in a heartless world.
There are allot of shiny baubles in Money Never Sleeps: new motorcycles, diamond earrings, and shimmering dresses. They are commodities and therefore come with a dis-satisfaction guarantee. But other than a vaguely "lefty" website that Winnie runs and Jake's earnest belief in investing in hydrogen fusion as the source of environmental redemption, there is not much dissent against the powers that be. If money never sleeps, the rest of society apparently does.
In this respect, at the end of the movie I felt like an activist's version of Bretton James. I wanted more.
Adam Phillips - Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored
Adam Phillips - Flirtation
Kevin Phillips - Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics and the Global Crisis of Capitalism
Goya - Robert Hughes (see the last chapter for the Spanish political context of Goya's Saturn painting)
C. Wright Mills - The Sociological Imagination