Greed was the title of one of the cinema’s most legendary productions – an 8-hour silent epic of 1924, by Erich von Stroheim, cut by MGM to two-and-a-half hours. Movie historians have been searching for the missing six hours ever since. Greed, by the prolific British director, Michael Winterbottom, is a mere 104 minutes, and not destined for filmic immortality.
There are a few easy laughs to be had in this story of a grotesque British billionaire who makes his money selling cheap clothing to the masses, but the film suffers from Winterbottom’s need to send a message about the evils of capitalism. Steve Coogan’s Sir Richard ‘Greedy’ McCreadie, is so shameless in his bastardry that watching him in action becomes more of a pain than a pleasure.
Rarely have I seen a film in which a writer-director displays such an obvious antipathy for his lead character. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese gave us an unvarnished portrait of fraudster, Jordan Belfort, but left us gasping and laughing at his antics. Greed shows us that Michael Winterbottom is no Martin Scorsese and Steve Coogan no Leo DiCaprio. This will be a disappointment for viewers (like me) who have enjoyed that series of movies called The Trip, in which Winterbottom directs Coogan and fellow comedian, Rob Brydon, playing versions of themselves. The latest installment, The Trip to Greece, has just been released on-line and on DVD.
In Greed, Coogan gives us a character who thinks only of himself and cares only for winning – not an unfamilar type in the present-day news cycle. We are introduced to Sir Richard at the annual party of his store, Monda, where the hostess introduces him as follows: “He is the king of the high street! He’s the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart of retail! He’s the Da Vinci of deal-making, and he’s the Monet of money.”
The great man takes a bow and presents his partner – and ex-wife – Samantha (Isla Fisher), with a cheque for a billion quid. We’ll learn the scerets of McCreadie’s success through the rather lame device of a biographer hired to writ the official hagiography. David Mitchell’s Nick is perhaps a humorous nod towards Nick Carroway, who narrates the story of the Great Gatsby. His task is to follow his subject around, visit shops and factories, interview friends and employees. It is, predictably, a horror story, starting with McCreadie’s schooldays, in which he specialised in fleecing his fellow students at cards. We watch him starting out as a travelling salesman who harangues deals out of his clients, before starting his own cut-price clothing outlet.
And so begins McCreadie’s rise to the top. While still a young man he realises he can maximise his profits by getting the work done in the sweatshops of Sri Lanka. Even here he can’t resist driving the hardest of bargains. As his fortunes increase he stages corporate takeovers by paying lavish bribes to the board members who will vote to accept his offer.
He cheats and bullies his way to success, taking pleasure in humiliating his subordinates. His wealth is borrowed from the bank, his empire built on debt. His modus operandi is to build up a business, strip it of its assets, ferret away the loot in a tax haven, and leave debtors and employees to pick over the wreckage. The only unpleasant hiccup in McCreadie’s stellar career has been a public grilling by government finance officers, determined to rake over his track record and sully his good name.
As a way of putting this episode behind him, McCreadie has decided to treat himself to a spectacular 60th birthday party on the island of Mykonos. The idea is for everyone to dress up in togas just like ancient Greeks, or should that be Romans? He is having his own colosseum built out of plywood, complete with a borrowed lion, and a host of freeloading celebrities. It would be idyllic if only the beach could be rid of those Syrian refugees living in tents.
McCreadie is meant to be vulgar in the way he displays his wealth, but he’s hardly more than a lout. As if we required convincing, Winterbottom gives us plenty of opportunities to study factory conditions in Sri Lanka. Nick is horrified by what he finds there, while one of Sir Richard’s coorporate assistants, Amanda (Dinita Gohil), has a sad tale to tell of her own Sri Lankan childhood. At this point the satire gives way to sermonising, in which McCreadie becomes representative of an entire breed of unscrupulous profiteer.
When the villain has been punished and the credits roll we are treated to sets of statistics about global wealth distribution and inequality. Presumably we are expected to exclaim: “Oh my God, how terrible! How unfair!” Instead, it seems like a terribly didactic, heavy-handed way to conclude a comedy.
Gross satire and moral disapproval are drinks that should never be mixed. When we are invited to laugh at McCreadie’s excesses we are absorbing the implicit message that his personal success comes at a huge cost to everyone else. It’s not necessary to emphasise that point in a manner that would make John Pilger blush. There’s an unhappy paternalism in not trusting your audience to understand a proposition such as: “It’s not nice for rich people to exploit poor ones.” No-one is going to shout “Eureka!” and start marching in the streets. They might, however, march out of the cinema, feeling let down by a movie that leaves us with a lecture instead of a laugh.
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Written by Michael Winterbottom & Sean Gray
Starring Steve Coogan, Isla Fisher, Shirley Henderson, David Mitchell, Asa Butterfield, Dinita Gohil, Sophie Cookson, Jamie Blackley, Shanina Shaik
UK, rated MA 15+, 104 mins
Available on digital from 1 July 1 and on DVD & Blu-ray from 15 July
Streaming on Apple TV, Google Play, Telstra TV Box Office, YouTube Movies, Fetch and Foxtel
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 27 June, 2020