The film has come to be seen as the archetypal portrayal of 1980s excess, with Douglas advocating "greed, for lack of a better word, is good". Wall Street defines itself through a number of morality conflicts putting wealth and power against simplicity and honesty.
Carl (Martin Sheen's character) represents the working class in the film: he is the union leader for the maintenance workers at Bluestar. He constantly attacks big business, money, mandatory drug screening and greedy manufacturers and anything that he sees as a threat to his union. The conflict between Gekko's relentless pursuit of wealth and Carl Fox's leftward leanings form the basis of the film's subtext. This subtext could be described as the concept of the two fathers battling for control over the morals of the son, a concept Stone had also used in Platoon. In Wall Street the hard-working Carl Fox and the cutthroat businessman Gordon Gekko represent the fathers. The producers of the film use Carl as their voice in the film, a voice of reason amid the creative destruction brought about by Gekko's unrestrained personal philosophy.
A significant scene in the film is a speech by Gekko to a shareholders' meeting of Teldar Paper, a company he is planning to take over. Stone uses this scene to give Gekko, and by extension, the Wall Street raiders he personifies, the chance to justify their actions, which he memorably does, pointing out the slothfulness and waste that corporate America accumulated through the postwar years and from which he sees himself as a "liberator". The inspiration for the "Greed is good" speech seems to have come from two sources. The first part, where Gekko complains that the company's management owns less than three percent of its stock, and that it has too many vice presidents, is taken from similar speeches and comments made by Carl Icahn about companies he was trying to take over. The defense of greed is a paraphrase of the May 18, 1986, commencement address at the UC Berkeley's School of Business Administration, delivered by arbitrageur Ivan Boesky (who himself was later convicted of insider-trading charges), in which he said, "Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself".
Wall Street is not a wholesale criticism of the capitalist system, but of the cynical, quick-buck culture of the 1980s. The "good" characters in the film are themselves capitalists, but in a more steady, hardworking sense. In one scene, Gekko scoffs at Bud Fox's question as to the moral value of hard work, quoting the example of his (Gekko's) father, who worked hard his entire life only to die in debt. Lou Mannheim, the films' archetypal mentor, says early in the film, that "good things sometimes take time", referring to IBM and Hilton—in contrast, Gekko's "Greed is Good" credo typifies the short-term view prevalent in the 1980s.