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Money still matters

Our resident critic muses about the role of money in entertainment

Let's talk money. First, as evidence, here are a few quotations from and about current entertainment. In an ad for the movie A Shock to the System comes this bold endorsement from Atlanta movie critic Eleanor Ringel: ''A film for anyone who ever muttered, 'DIE YUPPIE SCUM!''' From the jacket blurb for Liar's Poker, Michael Lewis' best-selling and true (and tongue-in-cheek) tale of quick killings in investment banking: ''It was wonderful to be young and working on Wall Street in the 1980s. Never before had so many 24-year-olds made so much money in so little time.'' On thirtysomething, Michael (Ken Olin) defends his bank account to his friend: ''I don't think it's strange. It's money. You don't like that I have it. I'm sorry. I have it. I'm stuck with it.'' And in the current hit flick Pretty Woman, a corporate raider (Richard Gere) compares himself with a prostitute (Julia Roberts): ''You and I are such similar creatures, Vivian. We both screw people for money.''

These storytellers seem ashamed of money — or at least ashamed of loving it. If entertainment really is our mirror, then perhaps this means we're learning something about money — questioning the value of a buck, repudiating greed, denying the excesses of the '80s. What a treat for the soul that could be, if it's true. So let's dare to look once more at these four items of entertainment and find out whether the '80s really are over.

In A Shock to the System, Michael Caine plays an advertising exec who has trouble with money — and power and love — until he discovers that he can get away with murdering people. He becomes rich and solves all his problems. The movie is a commentary on soulless ambition. It disapproves of greedy pigs but still says that we're surrounded by them and that, in America today, you can be greedy and unprincipled and get away with it.

Michael Lewis seems to agree. ''It is tempting to believe,'' he writes of money grubbers, ''that people who think this way eventually get their comeuppance. They don't. They just get richer. I'm sure most of them die fat and happy.'' He's slightly embarrassed by his own success, confessing that when you make $225,000 in investment banking at age 27, you are ''at the center of what has been possibly the most absurd money game ever and benefit out of all proportion to your value to society.'' So he chose to leave. ''I thought it would be better to tell the story,'' he says, ''than to go on living the story.'' Fine. And what gave him the freedom to sit and write a book about all the money he made? Money, that's what. And what does he get for turning his tale into a best-seller? More money.

thirtysomething is being examined in detail in this issue, so I won't chime in for long; I'm in that half of the world that is driven nuts by the people on the show. What bugs me most — besides their whining, their messy homes, their lumpy children, and their syncopated libidos — is their attitude toward money. In the episode quoted above, Michael's best friend is poor. He wants Michael to invest money in recording modernized lullabies so they can make a quick fortune, but Michael wants to invest in sensible real estate, even though the friend insists that real estate is not warm and loving, like lullabies. Then, after much brow-furrowing and sensitivity, they drop it all, deciding that money would ruin their beautiful friendship, though they're not quite sure why.

And then there is Pretty Woman, a fake romance that portrays women as prostitutes and men as johns or pimps. The movie does say that selling your body or your soul is not nice. Roberts wants to give up prostitution and Gere comes to see that he's not improving the world by buying companies just to break them up. So they decide to reform their ways. How? Roberts doesn't have to work the streets because Gere is rich and he will support her. Gere decides to protect a company from greedy pigs like him — and he can do that because he's rich enough to afford the luxury of decency.

These stories all acknowledge that money corrupts and huge money corrupts hugely. A Shock to the System disapproves of it; Liar's Poker and thirtysomething aren't completely sure what to think of it; Pretty Woman doesn't see much wrong with it. But they all agree on one thing: The cure for the corruption money causes is money. Are the '80s really over? Not yet.

Originally posted May 04, 1990 Published in issue #12 May 04, 1990 Order article reprints
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