BY BYRON GORDON
I recently attended a lecture at the Fromm Institute on the campus of the University of San Francisco on the topic of the American dream and how it has been depicted through cinema over the past 80 years. In the 1930’s, Charlie Chaplin would create two celebrated masterpieces, City Lights and Modern Times.
Both pictures star the iconic tramp, a character more comfortable with the journey of life itself rather than focused on arriving at any final destination. The tramp never aspires to greatness, and values only his integrity. While he is typically portrayed as a vagrant, the tramp is an amiable fellow, concerned mainly with his own personal freedom, and whose antics tended to get him in trouble with the law. The concluding scene in Modern Times shows the tramp and his ladylove by the roadside; having nothing but the clothes they wear.
The woman breaks down, feeling hopeless about their prospects. But the tramp tells her to “buck up!” and “don’t get down” for life is worth living, regardless of what gets in your way. And sure enough, they both stand up and walk down the road, with optimism pushing them along down the highway as the movie fades out.
Flash forward to 1987, the year Oliver Stone released Wall Street, a film about a young stockbroker willing to push ethics aside in pursuit of avarice by following in the footsteps of one, Gordon Gekko. In a now famous scene, Gordon Gekko speaks to the shareholders of Teldar Paper, telling them, “greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” Michael Douglas won an Oscar for his performance and since then has gone to say that whenever he’s recognized in public, he often hears people address him as “Gekko.” At the conclusion of Wall Street, Gekko is unknowingly tape-recorded sharing insider information. We know he will serve time behind bars.
The Little Tramp and Gordon Gekko both represent polar opposites in thinking on what exactly the American dream has come to mean. In the 1930’s, in the midst of a severe economic depression, the Little Tramp entertained the masses with only his wits and spirit as a bon vivant, making his way through life as best he could, never aspiring to anything more than say falling in love and sharing life with a willing partner.
Gordon Gekko has come to personify greed incarnate. His mantra, “money never sleeps,” fed his never ending quest to accumulate more and more wealth, screwing over anyone who got in his way. Gekko’s character was inspired by real life Wall Street stock traders convicted of insider trading, most notably, Ivan Boesky. But Gekko’s character left its mark on a country that’s never said no to excess. Gordon Gekko is a popular guy. In 2008, Gordon Gekko was named fourth richest fictional character by Forbes who attributed him with 8.5 million dollars.
Today, the American dream finds itself on the verge of extinction. The gap between rich and poor is at its highest ever and the middle class continues to shrink, both in terms of influence and purchasing power.
I’ve never liked the term “American dream.” Mainly because I’ve always felt that upward financial mobility is a universal theme, not specific to any one nation. More importantly, I like to think of the American dream the way the Little Tramp probably thought about the American dream. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The pursuit of money, wealth, or property didn’t make it into the final edition of the Declaration of Independence.
As far as I’m concerned, instead of worrying about the fate of the American dream, we Americans ought to be spending more time on what to do about the darker realities of the American present.