F. Ross Johnson decides to take the tobacco and food conglomerate RJR Nabisco private after receiving advance news of the likely market failure of the company's smokeless cigarette called Premier, the development of which had been intended to finally boost the company's stock price.
The free-spending Johnson's bid for the company is opposed by two of the pioneers of the leveraged buyout, Henry Kravis and his cousin. Kravis feels betrayed when, after Johnson initially discusses doing the LBO with Kravis, he takes the potentially enormous deal to another firm, American Express' former Shearson Lehman Hutton division.
Other bidders emerge, including Ted Forstmann and his company, Forstmann Little, after Kravis and Johnson are unable to reconcile their differences. The title of the movie comes from a statement by Forstmann in which he calls that Kravis' money "phoney junk bond crap" and how he and his brother are "real people with real money," and that it's necessary to stop raiders like Kravis: "we need to push the barbarians back from the city gates."
The bids for RJR Nabisco rise astronomically into the billions as the company's board encourages the competition, which Kravis ultimately wins, even though Johnson's final bid is higher.