Greed: We can't get enough

From the silent era to the present, the human desire for wealth and power has been a popular subject for Hollywood.

January 31, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

It's one of the seven deadly sins. It has brought down kings and civilizations. It gave Midas the golden touch, made Scrooge pinch his pennies until they screamed and induces contestants on "Wheel of Fortune" to make just one more spin, even though they already know the answer.

It's greed, a human emotion that leads to nothing but tragedy ... and, over the years, a lot of great movies. Most recently, it has given us "A Simple Plan," with Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as brothers who find a sackload of cash, agree to split it among themselves and another friend, then watch helplessly as the lust for money bends their moral compasses all out of whack.

Of course, greed has been a staple of literature for centuries -- King Lear's downfall was caused as much by his daughters' greed as his own vanity. But the movies have embraced greed as though they invented it. A few examples:

"Greed" (1924) -- Considered by some the greatest film of the silent era. A San Francisco couple's life crashes around them after she buys a winning lottery ticket. She goes mad, determined never to spend a cent of the money, while he is ruined by one of her former suitors, who's convinced he should be the one with the money. The final scene, with two mortal enemies handcuffed to each other in the middle of Death Valley, is about as bleak as they come.

"Scarface, the Shame of a Nation" (1932) -- This father of all gangster films has Paul Muni as a small-time hood who quickly makes it to the big time (the character is clearly patterned after Al Capone), but his craving to have it all -- and have it now -- leads to his downfall. It was remade in 1983, with Al Pacino wanting even more and wanting it faster.

"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948) -- Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston star as three prospectors convinced they're just one pickax swing away from the mother lode. And it isn't long before they regret how right they are. As is often the case, greed leads to murder -- and a Hollywood classic.

"It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963) -- Just about every comic to ever set foot in Hollywood turns up in this madcap farce that opens with a dying Jimmy Durante telling a group of strangers where they can find a buried $350,000. The group first pledges camaraderie, but within seconds, it's every man for himself. Needless to say, no one ends up with the money.

"The Oscar" (1966) -- It may be one of the worst movies ever made, with Stephen Boyd as an actor willing to do anything for the glory of winning that golden statue. Of course, he destroys more than a few lives in the process, but, like most movie glory-hogs, he gets his comeuppance.

"The Sting" (1973) -- Sure, this movie's mainly about the chemistry between Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but the whole charade -- an intricate con involving racehorses and crooked cops -- would collapse were it not for the insatiable greed of bad guy Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).

"The Man Who Would Be King" (1975) -- Greed isn't always about money; often, it's about power. Michael Caine and Sean Connery are a pair of British adventurers who seek their fame and fortune on the other side of the fabled Khyber Pass. But when the natives mistake Connery for the reincarnation of Alexander the Great, and Connery begins to think they may be right, tragedy follows.

"Lost In America" (1985) -- Albert Brooks' comic masterpiece hinges on what begins as greed, but ends up an addiction. Brooks is an ad executive who decides to quit society, empty his savings account and take up life on the road. Julie Hagerty is his wife, who takes their financial nest egg to the Vegas gambling tables, with riotous results.

"Wall Street" (1987) -- What better setting for a story of ruthless greed than the New York financial district? Michael Douglas won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of corporate raider Gordon Gekko, who has no trouble living up to his reptilian name.

"Greedy" (1994) -- Kirk Douglas is an eccentric millionaire whose relatives can't wait for him to kick off. About the only family member not willing to lie, cheat, steal, grovel or resort to anything short of genuine affection to get the money is his nephew, played by Michael J. Fox. Guess who ends up with the bucks?

Pub Date: 01/31/99

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