Money is the root of all evil...unless you use it for good, but that rarely happens in American movies.
"I've been a rich man and a poor man, and I choose being rich every fucking time." These are the immortal words of Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street, a movie that shows us that money, sex, and drugs actually provide a lifestyle that some people enjoy over and over again with little to no consequences.
Wealth and cinema have gone hand in hand since Citizen Kane and maybe even before that when people were trying to gather it in The Great Train Robbery. We've seen the poor get rich and the rich get poor; we've looked into the lives of both to see who is really happier.
But I keep going back to the word of Jordan Belfort and thinking about how excess is shown in movies. Do we really want to live in Bedford Falls and be saving all our money at the Savings and Loan? Or would we rather live across from that haunting green light in Gatsby, partying the nights away?
One place we can look to find the answer is in movies. Let's look at how wealth and capitalism are portrayed in Hollywood.
How Capitalism and Wealth are Shown in American Movies
I think there's a common misconception that if you live and work in Hollywood you must be rich. While many directors, writers, and actors/actresses make a lot of money, the majority of people working in every guild are decidedly middle class.
Still, part of that Hollywood dream is having enough money and power to pick and choose the projects you want to work on. To not have to take work just for the paycheck and really focus on doing what you believe in and also what you're passionate about doing.
But that all takes money, and money has a complicated history within Tinseltown.
After The Great Depression, Hollywood became concerned with the common man, mostly because people were showing up to the theaters to escape. So many people lost their jobs and were destitute, so much so that Hollywood didn't really want to remind people that money offered some happiness and freedom.
That's why we really went to different worlds with The Wizard of Oz and King Kong. But when it came to wealth and fortunes, movies like Sullivan's Travels and Citizen Kane focused on what average people have that no one can buy.
Even sweeping epics like Gone With the Wind are about losing everything you have...only to find a way back.
Screwball comedies were often about a couple from opposite ends of the economic spectrum. A rich gal trying to make it with a poor man, seeing what life is really like when the veneer of capitalist ideals wears off.
Think about movies like It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey. Both lampoon the rich lifestyle and favor a more worthy, pick yourself up by the bootstraps mentality.
The Economic Boom
After the Second World War, the economic boom in America focused on moving from the cities and building the middle class suburban life. Film, while still escapist, also saw wealth as a burden normal people would not want to bear, like in Sunset Boulevard.
At the same time, things were changing. Wealth was also a dominant fantasy. Roman Holiday was about a rich princess pining for the common life, but with having a cushion to fall back on if anything went wrong.
Even Disney got in on the action with Cinderella, where we see the ultimate fantasy is finding your prince and getting to move into a castle away from your problems. And even Robin Hood came to play, giving back to the poor.
Greed is Not Actually Good
As we look at film in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, a common theme comes to play. The idea that greed is actually not good, but wealth... maybe? There are lots of conflicting angles in movies from these eras. Money made fast and illegitimately, like in Bonnie and Clyde, gets punished.
But money made by investing in plastics, like in The Graduate, gets rewarded because it's a lifestyle you earned.
Even The Godfather II is about the Corleone family trying to go legit. They want money they earned legally. They want to move away from small crimes and become wealthy.
Enter the 1980s, when greed and excess were headlines in America. Movies like Wall Street took on these notions and showed people being punished for wanting more and more.
Wealth as a Lifestyle
Wealth is not something inherently American. Sure, the founding Fathers were rich, but their money came from England and when they got here, they had to abuse slave labor to stay wealthy. That was abhorrent. They did make a lot, but the story of America wasn't generational wealth. It was the myth that anyone could come here, work hard, and make their fortune.
Whether or not that's true is an ongoing debate, but it's the story sold to us. Not just by the writers of history, but also Hollywood.
I mean, look at Hamilton. It's a play and experience about not throwing away your shot to advance socially!
When you look at movies in the past 30 years, something changed when it came to showing money on the screen. We started glorifying capitalism and the generational wealth that Hollywood was founded on lampooning.
In the 90s, you could submit to an Indecent Proposal for money that may actually save your marriage or go on a Vegas Vacation where you have the possibility to strike it rich.
While there were movies about loss, we still had stories like It Could Happen to You, which gives you love and money at the end.
In the early 2000s, we were lauding tech billionaires. Social Network was about streamlined genius. Sure, you may have no friends at the end of it all, but you can buy anything.
You can blame Reaganomics or just our own post-internet boom, but Hollywood began to love cash. We were glorifying the ascent without the consequences. And that's what got us to Wolf of Wall Street, a movie that argues doing anything to get ahead is great, because at the top you have so much money that the consequences disappear.
That's where I feel like we're at now. The glorification of wealth and desire. I mean, I won't get into electing a billionaire to be America's president...but I do think the glorification of a lifestyle from movies and television had something to do with the popularization of a candidate...
So where are movies headed?
What comes next...
America is in the middle of an economic downturn that looks to be like the next Great Depression. I think there will be a strong turn back toward the common man and escapism. We've seen the money and power route and suffered the consequences of Hollywood's actions.
What comes next needs to be a reconciliation with those choices.
While I don't have any definitive proof of any of the theories I have presented, I do think you can sense entertainment trends based on our economic values.
How do you see Hollywood's relationship with capitalism on the screen?
What are some of your favorite movies about this stuff?
Let me know in the comments!