In 2001, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is released from prison on parole after serving eight years behind bars for insider trading and mail fraud. He leaves the prison hoping to find a car waiting for him but there is no one. He's alone.
Seven years later in June 2008 during the time of the great USA financial collapse, Jacob "Jake" Moore (Shia Lebouf) is awakened in his apartment by his girlfriend, Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Jake turns on the television and there is an interview with Gekko on television. Gekko has become an author and a lecturer promoting his new book, 'Is Greed Good?' Winnie gets upset and throws the remote at the TV after Jake doesn't turn it off. Winnie is Gekko's estranged daughter and wants nothing to do with him. Jake drives Winnie to the airport on his motorbike and she goes off to gather investors for her online political magazine.
Jake goes to work at Keller Zabel Investments, a Wall Street banking institution. He tries to raise more money for a fusion research project which will be a viable source of alternative energy down the line but the rest of the board doesn't agree with him. Jake is one of the firms top brokers and the protégé of its managing director, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella). Zabel has become disillusioned with the industry and doesn't understand how he can be told a loss is a profit. He gives Jake a $1.5 million bonus and tells him to spend it and keep the economy going. Zabel also encourages Jake to marry Winnie and have a kid since he knows that growing old isn't for the weak in this business and that Jake needs her.
Jake goes out to celebrate with his best friend and buys Winnie a diamond ring. He mentions that Winnie doesn't really support marriage, given the outcome of her parents divorce, but Jake knows that she loves him and he loves her. His friend asks about rumors that Keller Zabel is in danger, but Jake brushes it off.
The next day the company's stock starts crashing. Zabel doesn't come in to work so Jake goes and finds him walking his wife's dog in the park. Jake asks him if Keller Zabel is going to go under, but Zabel just tells him that he's asking the wrong question. The right question is: "Who isn't going under?"
Zabel meets with the chairmen of the US Treasury at the Federal Reserve. He tries to arrange a bailout but he is blocked by Bretton James (Josh Brolin), a former businessman that Zabel had crossed eight years prior when his company was going under. James insults Zabel by offering to buy Keller Zabel stock at $3 a share (against its $75 trading value from a week prior).
The next morning, Zabel wakes up and kisses his wife after breakfast. He goes to a news stand and picks up a bag of Lays chips and a newspaper. As the train pulls in, Zabel pushes towards the front of the line and jumps on the tracks.
Jake hears the news on the television of Zabel's suicide as Winnie returns from her trip. She hugs him and consoles him before he proposes to her. She agrees to marry him.
A few weeks later, Jake attends a lecture at Fordham University given by Gordon Gekko and hears what Gekko has to say about the current financial crisis. Gekko reveals that in his opinion the unrestrained speculation will cause a financial cataclysm, even though everybody is euphoric about the current financial bubble. After the lecture ends, Jake approaches Gekko and tells him that he's about to marry Winnie. They ride a subway train together and Gekko explains that his daughter won't speak to him because of her brother Rudy's suicide a few years prior over Gekko's imprisonment and social shunning over his father. Jake sees that Gekko has a photo of Winnie as a toddler and asks if he can have it. Gekko tells him that he will trade Jake for a more recent photograph of Winnie. Gekko gives him the photo and his card so that Jake will find him later on. He also tells Jake that Keller Zabel was in trouble the minute someone started rumors about them and that Jake should look for whoever profited from Keller Zabel's collapse. From now on, Gekko and Jake agree to make a "trade", so that Jake would enable Gekko to communicate with his estranged daughter, and, in return, Gekko would help Jake collect secret information to destroy Bretton, who ruined Jake's mentor. Thus Gekko reveals his characteristic philosophy of life, where every deal that he makes in return for something is nothing but a trade.
With the help of Gekko, who is very resourceful, Jake does some digging and realizes that Bretton James profited from the Keller Zabel collapse. In order to get his attention, Jake spreads false rumors about the nationalization of an African oil rig that Bretton's company owns. The company loses $120 million and Bretton asks for a meeting with Jake. At the meeting, he tells Jake that he is impressed and offers Jake a job, making it clear that if Jake doesn't accept he will have a lot of trouble being hired anywhere else. Determined to take Bretton out and avenge Zabel, Jake accepts.
Winnie and Jake go out to Long Island to meet with Jake's mother (Susan Sarandon), a real estate agent in financial trouble. She asks for $200,000 to float her properties. Jake gives it to her but Winnie tells Jake in private that she's only going to waste her chance again. She asks him to take her very expensive ring back because she isn't comfortable wearing something so expensive.
Jake pretends that he called Gekko to have dinner and ask his approval so he and Winnie go to have dinner with him. During their re-introductions, Gekko sees an important business man and introduces himself, only to be brushed off as a nobody. Winnie realizes that Gekko hasn't changed his greedy ways and leaves the restaurant upset. Jake pursues her and she tells him that if he goes back, Gekko will destroy them.
A few days later, Jake visits Gekko again at his apartment and gives him the photo of Winnie that he promised. Gekko tells Jake that his research pointed out that the Locust Fund, a private offshore hedge fund was betting against Keller Zabel. Jake explains that he was offered a job by Bretton James and Gekko tells Jake that he suspects it was James's testimony which got him sent away for eight years (more time than a murderer). Jake is confused, having assumed that it was Bud Fox who put Gekko after Fox's 1985-1986 insider trading trial. Gekko explains that Bud Fox got him on insider trading but that was nothing compared to some of Gekko's other activities that he was convicted of. He and Bretton had a falling out back in 1988 and, though he doesn't know for sure, he suspects that Bretton was behind it. Gekko asks for another trade: he wants to have a face to face with his daughter.
At work, Jake is put on the sideline so that Bretton's point woman can take over a pitch to the Chinese businessmen. They are unimpressed with her pitch, stating that they are looking for the next big thing in energy. Jake swoops in and presents them with the fusion research he has been supporting. Bretton is impressed by Jake's initiative and is glad that the firm has made more money. However, the firm is in trouble but Bretton doesn't want anyone to know. The economy is slowly starting to crumble. Bretton hosts a fundraiser and invites Jake and Winnie. Gekko asks Jake to front him $10,000 so that Gekko can also attend and have another chance to reconcile with Winnie.
Wandering around the party, Gekko ends up bumping into Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen, in a suprise cameo). Apparelty Fox did his time in prison and went on to build Bluestar Airline into one of the premier airlines in the country after his father's retirement and death. Fox sold the company and retired a multi-millionaire. He wishes Gekko well and tells him to stay out of trouble.
Gekko approaches Winnie and Jake at Bretton's table but Winnie leaves when Gekko arrives. Gekko and Bretton exchange a tense conversation where Gekko implies that he has proof that Bretton is responsible for putting him away. Bretton gets uncomfortable but points out that Gekko is no one. Gekko leaves him to find Winnie. Bretton tells Jake that the Chinese are going to invest $150 million in the fusion research Jake has been supporting.
Outside of the building, Gekko finds Winnie outside on the steps and they have an intense conversation. He tells her that she's all he has and she's his gal until the day that he dies. She hugs him and Jake watches them have their moment. Jake calls the head researcher and tells him that the money is on its way.
Over the next few months, the USA economy collapses. The stock market loses billions during September-October 2008.
Jake is at his apartment and tells Winnie that the world as they know it is over. Winnie tells him that is unacceptable because she is pregnant. Jake is floored but excitedly happy and kisses her.
Numerous companies around the country are failing. Bretton calls Jake into his office and Jake takes a helicopter to meet Bretton at his estate in upstate New York. The two participate in a motorcycle race against each other and Jake beats Bretton. Bretton tells Jake that the money the Chinese invested is going into fossil fuels instead of fusion research. Jake gets angry knowing that Bretton is trying to sink the fusion research since it is not profitable, even though it would benefit the entire world. Bretton would be unable to control the source once the technology becomes known, unlike with the oil industry. Jake quits and tells Bretton to go fuck himself.
Jake tells Gekko about what happened and Gekko reveals that there is a solution: Winnie has a trust fund account in Switzerland with $100 million which Gekko set up in the 1980s when she was born. He told her that once he was out of jail, he would need that money to reassert himself but Winnie reneged when Rudy died. While she has always considered giving it to charity, she hasn't. Jake could use that money to fund the research and save the company. But since Winnie never declared it, she could go to jail for tax evasion. Gekko tells Jake that he can embezzle it with his old contacts. Jake believes him and goes to talk to Winnie.
At Winnie's office, Jake asks why she never mentioned the money. Winnie is shocked that he knows but Jake gets enthusiastic about the fusion research and tells her that this is her chance to make a difference. She agrees and the two fly to Switzerland. She signs the money over to Jake. Jake then entrusts the money to Gekko so that he can legitimize the funds for the investment in the fusion research company.
A few hours after returning to New York, Jake gets a call saying that the money never arrived. He gets frantic but his mother interrupts him before he goes to deal with Gekko. She asks for $100,000 because of the collapse of the housing industry, but Jake gives her $30,000 and tells her that he cannot afford to waste any more money on her ridiculous real estate deals. He goes to Gekko's apartment and finds it empty: he's gone.
Jake tells Winnie what happened and that he's been talking to Gekko for a while. She breaks off their engagement and tells Jake to leave: she no longer trusts him or feels safe around him. He leaves bitterly and tracks Gekko to England, where Gekko is running a financial company again with the $100 million he stole from Winnie and Jake. Jake propositions him for one last trade: Winnie gets her $100 million back and Gekko gets a grandson. Jake shows him the ultrasound of his son but Gekko, despite being moved, cannot let go of being someone of importance. He tells him that its not about money; its about the game. Gekko says that giving the money away is a "trade he cannot make." Jake leaves.
Over the next few weeks, by using the previous information collected by Gekko about Bretton, Jake begins piecing together everything from Keller Zabels collapse to the economic bailouts being issued for Brettons company. Jake points out that Bretton owns the Locust Fund (www.locustfund.com) and puts the pieces together in one large information packet. He gives it to Winnie, telling her that it will put her website on the map for good as a legitimate source of information and that he misses her like crazy. He then leaves.
Winnie runs the story and Bretton James is exposed. The board of directors kicks him out of the company and Bretton is forced to testify to his crimes in front of the Congressional Committee, who note that they previously had Brettons cooperation in the Gekko investigation. Bretton's career is over and he's left to the sharks. Bretton's board of directors, led by the elderly banker Julius Scherhart (Eli Wallach) goes to Gekko in order to start doing business with him in view of the new credibility Gekko gained through his London firm's astounding success. He speaks to his materialistic business clients in the language they understand and respect: by correctly predicting the coming financial collapse, Gekko sold the market short and turned the 100 million that he stole from his daughter into the incredible sum of $1 billion dollars. He proudly looks at his account assets; Gekko is a billionaire again.
Jake sees the very pregnant Winnie walking to her apartment and helps her carry her things. Their son has been kicking and keeping her up at night. Jake feels his sons kicks and Winnie thanks him for the help but they do not reconcile. Gordon appears and tells them that he deposited the $100 million in to the fusion researchers account anonymously. Now that Gekko attained his aim of becoming a billionaire by using the money he stole from his daughter, he finally returns that relatively small sum. He tells them that they make a good couple and that hed like to be there for them as their father and a grandfather. He walks away saying, "What? Can't you believe in a comeback?"
Jake kisses Winnie and they reconcile before the birth and, one year later, they celebrate their son's first birthday with a party, at which Gordon Gekko is also present.