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On Location in NYC: Wall Street – How Good Is Our Greed?

In Oliver Stone’s classic, Wall Street, Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas) famously proclaims, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” He does so in an impassioned speech to shareholders of a company in which he’s trying to gain a controlling interest. And there’s nothing more American than money, liberty, and gluttony.

Wall Street became the quintessential battle cry for traders since its debut in 1987. It signified ruthlessness, Ayn Randian self-interest, and the American dream: to have more than the next guy and then more on top of that. And no preachy, underwritten sequel can obscure its message. Stock traders idolize Wall Street the same way poker players worship Rounders and hipsters ironically dig Blue Velvet. It’s the excitement of the chase, basking in the kill, and reaping the rewards of a life dedicated to money and, in this case, cocaine, red meat, and sex. Then again, maybe that’s just every man’s dream.

It is in the film’s carefully chosen NYC locales, however, that Stone really finds authenticity in a screenplay about liars and thieves. When Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) makes his first big score, Gecko treats him to lunch at The 21 Club on 21 W. 52nd Street, a landmark of formality and opulence since 1922. And who better to embody excess than Charlie Sheen? Outside, thirty-three cast iron lawn jockey statuettes line the black balcony and staircase in front of the restaurant. Inside, football helmets, model planes, and toy trucks dangle from the ceiling in what feels like a smirking gesture to the idea of a true “boys club.” At the time of the film, the 21 Club required a jacket and tie, and though they were one of the last to hold out, they recently dropped their tie requirement and are only one of thirteen restaurants left in the city that still mandate a dinner jacket (Lost New York City).

Photo by Matthew Di Paoli

The 21 Club represents elitism and exclusion at its very finest. It’s what men like Gordon Gecko pay for—the feeling that they can experience something unfit for and unavailable to the general public. Even its history is based on exclusivity and deception. During prohibition, the 21 Club held “perhaps the most elaborately disguised wine cellar in New York City” (21club.com). Aptly, in the scene, Bud is learning that the rules no longer apply to him. Gecko orders him a steak tar tar, off the menu. “I bet on sure things,” says Gecko, adding that Bud should enjoy the “perks” of his new position; and there are few backdrops that scream “perk” louder than the 21 Club.

In an interview about the film, Stone reminisces that it was “one of [his] first films about America.” He went on to talk about the climate of 1980s Wall Street, saying there was, “So much coke, so many lunatics. Kids running around…with millions of dollars” (Money Never Sleeps documentary). It was a time before we all knew we were vulnerable. Before two recessions, the terrorist attacks, the Kardashians. It seemed like an endless, hedonistic vision.

But all visions end. Much like the next location in the film, Tavern on the Green. Once a staple of high living in the middle of Central Park, Tavern on the Green shut its doors in 2009 after a run of 75 years as one of the city’s most recognizable, most beatific, spots to splurge. The food may not have always been spectacular, but it was the ambiance that made Tavern on the Green so unique—the glowing dinosaur topiaries, the litany of year round white Christmas lights in the garden, and the feeling that you were transported out of Manhattan’s pungent scents and piercing honks if only for a few hours.

After filing for bankruptcy, the Tavern became a gift shop and information center, but like a tourist-trapping Phoenix rising from the ashes, the restaurant is now under construction and slated to return to its former glory in 2013 (nydailynews.com). The Tavern on the Green was popular with celebrities like John Lennon and Madonna, the wealthy, and travelers; but it was also a symbol of New York, a landmark of family, an escape and an elegant fantasy.

Central Park itself plays a large role in the film’s finale when Gecko and Bud meet in the middle of Sheep’s Meadow after Bud’s conscience gets the best of him. While filming the scene, Charlie Sheen famously slapped Michael Douglas so hard that when the camera was off him he asked if Douglas were okay, but Douglas continued the take and that was the print Oliver Stone ended up using (Money Never Sleeps documentary).

There is something eerie about the two men meeting in a vacant Sheep’s Meadow, a lawn usually brimming with life. The scene is shot at dusk. It is the first time the two men seem to be on an even playing field because Bud has lost his reverence for Gecko’s cutthroat charm. They both seem minuscule in the vast meadow. In the background, the city looms overhead, reminding us that there is always something bigger than the petty, salacious greed that permeates the film. That the city will go on with or without these industrious pawns.

Photo by Matthew Di Paoli

It is New York City that is the constant in Wall Street. Wall Street will ebb and flow, endure scandal, excess, and scheme, but, in the end, New York will always rise above it.

Photo Credit: Wall Street movie poster courtesy of if i could swim

About Matthew Di Paoli

Matthew Di Paoli received his BA at Boston College where he won the Dever Fellowship and the Cardinal Cushing Award for Creative Writing. He recently finished his MFA at Columbia University for Fiction.

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