A farm-boy becomes wealthy in Chicago stockyards but lives to see his descendants lose it in the stock market crash.
In 1856 Anna Nordholm (Aline MacMahon) gives birth in Dakota territory so remote they miss the entire Civil War. In 1877 Orin Nordholm (Paul Muni) leaves home to organize a cattle drive from Abilene, Texas. Clafflin (Guy Kibbee) urges Orin to bring cattle to Chicago. Orin asks Selma (Jean Muir) to go with him, but she declines. In Chicago Orin marries Clafflin's daughter Virginia (Mary Astor), and two years later her father dies. Bankers say that Nordholm is moving too fast and won't renew his note. Nordholm supervises the stockyards and asks the banker Patton to invest in frozen beef; but he declines. Nordholm realizes he can put iceboxes on wheels and becomes wealthy. He wants to see his mother, but Virginia doesn't want her living with them. Virginia hates the stockyards and objects to their sons going there, saying no more meat on their table.
In 1904 Virginia entertains the Clintons of New York and announces Nordholm's retirement. Richard Nordholm (Donald Cook) gets engaged to Jennifer Clinton (Margaret Lindsay) and plans to live in the east. John Nordholm (Gordon Westcott) goes to Oxford; but Orin says he wants both sons to stay there and threatens to put Virginia in an asylum. She faints, and the doctor says she needs quiet. Nordholm needs money and makes phone calls. At the last minute his employees send in money so he can buy Nordholm stock. At home Virginia calls Orin a bloody butcher; then she collapses and dies. He sells his company.
In 1929 Nordholm reads his granddaughter is marrying a baronet. Paul Nordholm buys stock on margin. The baronet Phillip Ivor (Alan Mowbray) calls on Nordholm, says he has been married twice, and is told to go away. Orin calls on Richard and objects to the marriage. Jennifer tells him not to meddle and says he drove his wife insane. 90-year-old Anna arrives for the wedding as stocks crash. Young Orin meets a young Selma. Anna learns that John and Paul don't really work. Nordholm calls them leeches, fools, and thieves. Paul and Richard are ruined by the crash. Nordholm asks Orin and Selma to go back west. John laughs and tells Philip that the Nordholm company is bankrupt. Nordholm gives the money they stole back. He sees that Richard shot himself, and he falls on the stairs. In the final scene young Orin and Selma with Anna pray they may prosper on the farm.
This saga moving from the farm to cattle drives and meat-packing to stock investing suggests each generation through greed moved farther from the reality of real work and production until the bubble burst in tragedy.