The truth about the banking world

Will Hodges recommends some classic books and films claiming to expose it

Wall Street

directed by Oliver Stone, 1987

The original and still the most accomplished cinematic take on the world of finance. It was released in 1987 so the clothes, haircuts and mobile phones are dated somewhat, but the themes of banking excess, greed and loose morals are more relevant than ever given the financial scandals of the past few years. Set in New York's financial district, Wall Street chronicles the rise of Charlie Sheen's eager young sales trader Bud Fox as he works his way up the ladder aided by his mentor, the ruthless investment guru Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas. Gekko draws Fox into the murky world of shady deals and insider trading as the protagonist wrestles between his ambition and the old-school ideals instilled in him by his father.

The film is loosely based on director Oliver Stone's conversations with his father, who worked on Wall Street during the Great Depression, and is the first of its kind to really provide a warts-and-all look at the thinking and ideology of corporate financiers. The most quoted line from the film, Gekko's "Greed, for want of a better word, is good", perfectly encapsulates the dog-eat-dog attitude of the 1980s (not to mention the 2000s). Many financial films have followed over the past 25 years, including Stone's 2010 sequel, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. But none have managed to make the same impression on the public consciousness and inspire an entire generation of finance professionals the way Wall Street did.

Cityboy: Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile

by Geraint Anderson,

Headline, 2009

Written by former City stockbroker Geraint Anderson, Cityboy was developed from an anonymous column Anderson wrote for a London newspaper that chronicled the realities of life at a major financial firm. Described as a semi-autobiographical take on his time in the City, the book draws on Anderson's experiences as he rises from naive young graduate to vice president. His is a familiar tale of an innocent young recruit propelled by his own ambition into a world of money and excess, tinged with the particular details that encapsulate City life: boozy lunches, outings to Soho and groggy, early-morning tube journeys. Behind the excesses, we also get a sense of the dangerously brash over-confidence of the trading floor and the subsequent risk-taking that was to lead to the crisis of the late 2000s.

Key to the readability of the novel are the stock characters Anderson brings to life: the wide-boy Essex traders, the floppy-haired public school boys and the socially handicapped "quants" to name but a few. The countless hours the author has spent around these people enables him to lift the characters he depicts above mere stereotypes and into fully-rounded personalities, and helps him to flesh out a somewhat flimsy plot. Cityboy is certainly not the most complex or in-depth of financial reads, but there are few more entertaining and comic portrayals of City life.

Boiler Room

directed by Ben Younger, 2000

Written and directed by Ben Younger, this 2000 drama lifts the lid on the shady world of stockbroking. Though fictional, the film is based on numerous conversations Younger had with stockbrokers over a two-year period. The protagonist of the film is Seth Davis, played by Giovanni Ribisi, a 19-year-old college dropout who comes to work for a small brokerage firm in the suburbs. Despite possessing little financial know-how, Seth learn the ropes quickly from his streetwise colleagues and finds that he's a natural in the art of persuading everyday Joes to part with their hard-earned cash in return for the latest must-have financial stock. The distractions of money, girls and swanky bars aren't enough to silence Seth's conscience, however, and his feeling that there's something untoward going on with his firm and its shady director, Michael. Will Seth keep his mouth shut and keep taking the money, or do the decent thing and expose the firm's dishonest dealings?

Though at times somewhat far-fetched and featuring a number of gaping holes in the plot, Boiler Room is a fun and fast-paced portrayal of life inside stockbroking. The film pays a direct tribute to Wall Street and at times you wonder whether it's superfluous next to Oliver Stone's masterpiece. Nevertheless, Boiler Room probably deserves a place in your financial cinema collection.

Day One Trader

by John Sussex

John Wiley & Sons, 2009

Banker-bashing has become a favourite media sport in recent years as the image of financiers as selfish, money-grabbing mercenaries has become firmly etched in the public consciousness. The recent swathe of film and book releases has done little to challenge this negative perception of the banking profession. Day One Trader, the biography of City trader John Sussex, bucks the trend of this line of thinking. Written by financial journalist Joe Morgan, the book narrates Sussex's journey from humble factory worker's son to owner of the largest independent brokerage firm in Europe. While his success is played out against the backdrop of the financial services boom of the 1980s and 1990s, Sussex's tale is one of hard work and ambition rather than greed and sleaze, and distances City life from the bar and nightclub culture with which it's often associated. Instead, Morgan turns his focus to the trading floor itself: the adrenaline and speed of the decision-making and the gentlemanly competition and one-upmanship that exists between rival firms.

Along the way we're told about the advances that have driven the City's growth over the past twenty years, particularly the introduction of electronic trading and the development of new financial products such as derivatives. Yet it's asserted that, despite these changes, at the base of City life remains a set of common values and a sense of honour, upon which Sussex has based his career. Bankers are not all bad, it seems.