The list of Hollywood movies in which greed is the central theme is virtually endless…from classics such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958), to the coming soon Return of Gordon Gekko.
In The Simple Men we are told that there are only two things in life “desire and trouble; whenever there’s desire there’s trouble.” The Simple Men is a movie about just how far a simple man will go for four million dollars. Would you kill your brother? Similarly, in Goodfellas, Jimmy Conway is a bank robber who methodically kills off everyone who helped him with a five million dollar heist rather than giving them their share of the stolen money.
In Brian de Palma’s epic crime film, Scarface, we see greed run rampant on the sun-washed streets of Miami. In the Coen brothers Fargo, we see that embezzlement is never enough. In Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s classic about conspicuous consumption, the ruthless Gordon Gekko assures us that "Greed…is good. Greed is right. Greed works."
Superman’s Lex Luther may rank as the greediest of all. After buying up most of the land bordering California, Luther plans to blow California off the map, making his dessert real estate into luxury coastal property. And let’s not forget Ocean’s 11, the casino heist movie which made it to the screen twice–once with the rat pack in 1960 and then again in 2001 with Clooney heading the cast. And Ocean’s 12, and 13, and perhaps even a 14, but I’m becoming greedy.*
None of these movies, much as we watch them, much as we celebrate in them, gets to the heart of the matter–that we are all greedy, that each of us is fundamentally greedy from the get-go, greedy beyond anything Hollywood could imagine. Raising moral questions about greed, which a few of the sited movies do, can make amusing conversation as we leave the cinema, but it too misses the point. Why? Because our greed is so to-the-core that we don’t even realize we are greedy, greedy, greedy.
In the dharma, greed is the first of the three poisons. It is first and foremost the reason we do anything. The way our mind works, we always want more. It is our karma as a species. And what we notice during meditation is that everything we do stems from our greed. We only do things, after all, to get more of what we want, more of what we like, think we should have or should be, or inversely, to get less of the things we don’t want, and so forth.
This is greed, the driving passion of our lives. It is fundamental to how our mind works. It is the model we use for evaluating ourselves; it is the model we use for making decisions. In the movies, it is easy to se how greed poisons everything, not so in real life. In the movies it is easy to see that there are alternatives. Not so in real life.
For me in my practice, the questions isn’t “What would I do for four million dollars?” but rather “What will I do today to end my greed?”
Here’s a simple exercise for practicing with greed: Whenever you are in conflict, whenever you need to make a choice, tell yourself emphatically: It is not about me getting what I want.
*It should be noted that I was looking at movies chiefly characterized by material greed, but in fact, all movies, like literature, are based on conflict, and all conflict arises from greed.