The Love of Money Versus “Godliness with Contentment”: 10 Movies about Wealth and Greed
This article was originally published on April 17, 2018.
The Bible offers dozens of passages on money, greed, and the proper attitude toward wealth. Perhaps you’ve recently pondered some of these while working toward this year’s April 17th tax deadline!
In honor of that auspicious event—and with a view toward kicking back once you’re finished—here are 10 worthy films about riches, poverty, and avarice, with an appropriate text from Scripture to go with each one (ESV, unless otherwise noted).
1. Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Starring Walter Huston and Humphrey Bogart (in one of his finest roles), this tale of prospectors in the Old West is on many lists of all-time great American films. It features a brutally realistic fistfight, a brief appearance by young Robert Blake, and those famous Mexican bandits who “don’t need no stinkin’ badges.” John Huston (Walter’s son) won Oscars for direction and writing; he also cameos as a much-abused “fellow American.”
Theme-wise, you could scarcely find a fictional tale that more clearly demonstrates Proverbs 23:4-5: “Do not toil to acquire wealth…. When your eyes light on it, it is gone, for suddenly it sprouts wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”
2. A Christmas Carol (2009)
Not as good as the famed Alastair Sim version from 1951 (few films are), this animated delight from motion-capture guru Robert Zemeckis is nonetheless a spectacular take on Dickens’s tale of greed and redemption. Heart-wrenching, gorgeous, and often scary, it features Jim Carrey as Scrooge—a self-centered hoarder who learns the truths of Jesus’ parable in Luke 12. In this parable a rich man plans to build bigger barns for all his stuff—but God calls him to account: “‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you’…. For not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (Luke 12:13-21, NASB).
3. Fools’ Parade (1971)
Currently unavailable for purchase (though it sometimes airs on a movie channel), this neglected gem features James Stewart in a late-career triumph. He plays a Depression-era ex-con who suddenly finds himself with $25,000—and a lot of unwanted attention. With excellent supporting roles by Strother Martin, Anne Baxter, Kurt Russell, and George Kennedy, the film also features many classic scenes, including a dog that dutifully fetches a lit stick of dynamite after it’s been hurled away. Stewart terrorizes a holy-roller by plucking out his own glass eye while quoting Matt. 5:29: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.”
4. Wall Street (1987)
Greed, of course, is not good—despite contrary claims by wheeler-dealer Gordon Gekko in this indictment of stock-market chicanery. Directed by Oliver Stone, the film won Michael Douglas his second Oscar (he already had one as producer of 1975’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest). It co-stars Charlie and Martin Sheen (as father and son), along with Hal Holbrook, Terence Stamp, Daryl Hannah, and James Spader. The blue-collar plot strand featuring the Sheens points to the proverb, “A rich man is wise in his own eyes, but a poor man who has understanding will find him out” (Prov. 28:11).
5. All the Money in the World (2017)
Last year’s little-seen thriller about the real-life kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson in Rome in 1973, for which the wealthy patriarch refused to put up ransom. The fine cast includes Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg along with an excellent Christopher Plummer as Getty, but its real strength is the trenchant message about greed and contentment.
As the aging miser clings pathetically to his treasures, we see how little it all matters when weighed against a human life—especially as this contrasts with Williams’s stirring final declaration. I can’t think of another movie that will make you so glad you aren’t rich. “The ransom of a man’s life is his wealth, but the poor man hears no threat” (Prov. 13:8).
6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
This beloved classic was James Stewart’s favorite among his own films. Centering on a mislaid bank deposit, IAWL doesn’t just condemn greed and selfishness, but it also offers compelling alternatives: friendship, compassion, and sacrifice, along with a memorable lesson on each person’s unique value in the world. Like All the Money in the World, it juxtaposes these priceless virtues with a crabby, avaricious, and bitterly unhappy old man—in this case, the love-to-hate banker Mr. Potter. “Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is crooked in his ways” (Prov. 28:6).
7. 101 Dalmatians (1961)
Modest, winsome animated fare about a different type of greed—for spotted puppy fur! With engaging characters and some nice vocal work (that’s Rod Taylor as Pongo), it stands the test of time—despite a successful live-action remake in 1996. “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel” (Prov. 12:10).
8. Goldfinger (1964)
James Bond finds himself in Kentucky where the film’s titular villain, Goldfinger, plans to irradiate Fort Knox so his own reserves will be worth more. This third film in the long-running series features its coolest car, coldest henchman, and classiest 007. Here played by a dashing Sean Connery, the famous spy helps demonstrate how “unjust gain…takes away the life of its possessors” (Prov. 1:19).
9. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
This madcap epic about a race for buried cash has been lambasted for its excesses: too many minutes (154), too many stars (stay alert for countless cameos!), and too many stunts (including two mishandled planes and a runaway hook-and-ladder). Nevertheless, it’s a terrific way to spend an evening. Best bits: Sid Caesar’s lunatic attempt to divide up the shares, and any scene starring Ethel Merman or Terry-Thomas (“Have a care—that chap’s run amok!”). 2001’s star-studded Rat Race, practically a remake, is similarly uproarious.
Both of these comic capers bear out the Bible’s key passage on wealth and greed. As Paul wrote to Timothy, there is “great gain in godliness with contentment,” but those who want to get rich “fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:6-10).
10. Greed (1924)
Erich von Stroheim’s silent masterpiece concerns a woman who wins $5,000 but lives in poverty because she refuses to touch the cash. The original version was reportedly 10 hours long, but the studio edited it down to 140 minutes. (The trimmed footage was destroyed, though Turner Entertainment cobbled together an impressive-looking four-hour version in 1999.)
Greed’s gripping plotline powerfully stresses the foolishness of hoarding wealth—the very thing condemned by James in his New Testament letter: “Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire” (James 5:1-3). Keep that final phrase in mind during the movie’s blazing finale, which was filmed on location in Death Valley—just watching it will make you sweat.
And speaking of perspiration—be sure to get to work on those taxes before cuing up any of these classics!
Joseph W. Smith III is a writer, teacher, and speaker in Central Pennsylvania. You can learn more about him at his website, www.josephwsmithiii.com.
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