Amid the veneer of impossibly bronze skin, eye-blindingly bright teeth, and jaw-droppingly beautiful vistas, Michael Winterbottom presents a morality tale about the dangers of excess wrapped up in an often tonally uneven satire, which pulls too many punches to be as effective as it hopes to be.
At times a meandering docu-drama, a soft satire, and an expose on, well, greed, Winterbottom’s signature breezy style – so well suited to projects such as The Trip or A Mighty Heart – doesn’t quite manage to muster the emotional resonance it seems to be going for. It presents the audience with several gut-punch moments which you feel should mean more but somehow leave you feeling a little hollow, even if some of the aspects of the movie in itself are rage-inducing.
Greed is loosely based around the real story of Philip Green, a High Street monarch who is responsible for such UK clothing brands as Topshop. Green and other retailers of his ilk made their fortunes off the backs of cheap labour in developing worlds such as Sri Lanka and Taiwan, and it’s this aspect the movie tries to hone in on.
Standing in for Green is Steve Coogan’s ruthless billionaire Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie, a perma-tanned Narcissus sporting possibly the most ludicrous set of teeth ever seen in cinema. Coogan and Winterbottom go way back, first working together on 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, and having worked on several projects in the interim. It’s easy to see why: Winterbottom‘s satirical style plays well for Coogan, who made his name on similar projects such as Alan Partridge.
There is certainly a Partridgian aspect to McCreadie’s oblivious egomaniac as he bounds through every scene as though he alone understands how anything works, even when it’s quite obvious that the opposite is actually true.
The movie itself jumps seamlessly through time periods, and while it shows the director’s talent that he can present these transitions in a way that makes it easy for the viewer, there are some aspects of it which jar. The majority of these come through a narrative device whereupon Nick – played with typical awkward oafishness by David Mitchell – who is hired to write a biography on McCreadie, spends much of the movie interviewing McCreadie’s friends and family to understand him more. As he does this we flashback to key moments in McCreadie’s life, from his beginnings in the Soho market as he bullies vendors for insulting deals, to his ascent as a high street mogul leveraging his poor quality clothing into an asset-stripping empire.
The problem with these flashbacks is that they clash with the latter day sequences which show Coogan lazily swanning around Greek vistas, lampooning the plight of the rich (at one point he complains about the family of Syrian refugees who washed up on the beach and set up camp there because they’re ruining his view). It’s hard to decide if we should be angry at the clear amoral brutality of a system that allows someone like McCreadie to exploit Sri Lankan workers, or laugh at the ridiculousness of a billionaire demanding a mini-Coliseum be built as a tribute to his favourite movie.
In This Life or the Next
In the aftermath of an investigation by the Parliamentary Select Committee into the bankruptcy of one of his chain stores, Richard McCreadie flees to the island of Mykonos to plan his 60th birthday and his big comeback.
The party itself is a tacky tribute to the movie Gladiator, hence the Coliseum, and much of the latter day scenes lean into this satirical aspect of the movie; McCreadie demands high profile stars attend his party, but wisely most of them decide to stay away, leaving McCreadie with no option but to hire celebrity lookalikes (including George Michael, because apparently no-one was aware he had passed away).
Alongside this is an undercooked sub-plot involving McCreadie’s daughter, who – alongside her boyfriend – is the star of a reality show titled The Rich & the Beautiful, and his son who harbours literally Oedipean intentions towards his father and step-mother.
Also on the island is Nick, hating himself for accepting the commission to chronicle McCreadie’s life, and McCreadie’s tired assistant Amanda, played by Dinita Gholi. While Nick has arguably the more important role here, given he is the link between the latter day scenes and the flashbacks to McCreadie’s youth, it is Amanda who is the heart of the movie – proving to be possibly the only person with a moral backbone, and the only real hero the movie offers. Gholi isn’t given much to work with here, unfortunately. Amanda has some real conflicts to face and makes a key decision which turns the movie on its head and leads to a particularly ghoulish denouement, yet she never feels quite fleshed out enough to be believable. A final scene showing her working in a sweatshop is disingenuous at best and smacks of lazy writing at worst.
McCreadie, of course, is the centre of the story here: he is the personification of greed, the symbol of unfettered capitalism, and the detachment towards decency or empathy that it creates. Coogan really doesn’t have a lot of heavy lifting to do here. He’s always best when lampooning egotistical men brought low by their own hubris, but the material here isn’t exactly subtle and the smirking, oblivious McCreadie can’t have presented too much of a challenge for him to play.
Similarly, Mitchell recycles the same bumbling introvert with a penchant for Shakespeare that we’ve come to expect from him and his oeuvre. This is not to say that it’s not effective – Nick is relatable and a good foil to help us into the movie – but it’s hard not to feel like Winterbottom may have simply turned the camera onto Mitchell without a script and filmed whatever came out. The kind of laid-back attitude to casting and the generally-quite-broad-script serve to undermine the tone the film seems to ultimately be striving for.
Greed really feels like it ought to have set its aim a little higher. There are real issues to address in this movie – issues which are highlighted in post-credit statistics – yet there feels to be very little intent to showcase these. Too many times McCreadie is shown to be a blustering fool caught up in his own bravado (a recurring motif shows him making a ridiculous demand and then walking away, waiting to be called back by his begrudging negotiator), but the real world implication of his decisions is barely mentioned or examined.
There’s an argument that perhaps all of this would mean nothing: your average person understands the low-wage labour which goes into high street fashion brands, and would likely not be put off from buying cheap yet fashionable clothes once they find out the kind of brutal, cruel budget cuts which sustain it. Perhaps this wasn’t the type of film Winterbottom wanted to make anyway; Greed seems more content to make fun of the ua wealthy and how out of touch they are with the workings of the real world. Yet you feel he clearly wants you to feel anger towards this system; if only there was more of a focus on the sweatshops McCreadie exploits and less on, among other things, a building supervisor trying to negotiate with a lazy Greek builder, or a lion tamer a little too invested in his languid lion.
Ultimately, as the spotlight falls more and more on the real-world cost of capitalism, it is movies like Dark Water which will provide eye-opening insights into the machinations of our system and those who suffer from it, while movies like Greed – though entertaining and enjoyable in their own right – will likely fade into the ether, having not said very much at all.
What did you think of Greed? Do you feel it could change the way we view high street clothing brands? Let us know in the comments below!
Greed was released in the UK on February 21st and premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019.
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