By: Ali Moosavi
Michael Winterbottom is one of the most prolific filmmakers in today’s cinema. In the last twenty years he has made 26 feature films and a 24-part TV mini-series. Since working with Steve Coogan on 24 Hour Part People in 2002, they have made a number of films together, including a series of “Trip to” films featuring Coogan and Rob Brydon visiting Spain, Italy, Greece, etc.
Winterbottom’s latest film Greed is a very thinly disguised portrait of the disgraced British billionaire Sir Philip Green, creator and owner of such high street brands as Topshop, Evans, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, BHS, etc. His alter ego in the film is Sir Richard McCreadie (Steve Coogan). The film starts at a celebration function for one of Sir Richard’s fashion labels, Monda. He is introduced by the female MC of the event as “The King of High Street, Mozart of Retail, Da Vinci of Deal Making and Monet of Money”. Sir Richard smiles and hands over a dividend check for £1.2 Billion to his wife, the Chairwoman of Monda.
Winterbottom uses Sir Richard’s 60th Birthday party as the centerpiece of his film. The party is being held in a Greek island where they are building a replica coliseum, complete with a real lion for the event. Sir Richard is to dress as the Roman emperor and all the guests have to wear ancient Roman costumes. Winterbottom’s script then alternates between scenes of preparation for the party and flashbacks to Sir Richard’s start in the trade, beginning with his gambling at school, buying designer clothes from busted companies at knockdown prices, getting them dry cleaned, slapping a new label on them and selling them as brand new items (as was done in real life by Philip Green). He tells his investors that instead of paying the £3 hourly minimum wage in the UK for making garments, he can get them made in Sri Lanka by paying only 50 Pence. A day.
Sir Richard’s visits to Sri Lanka, where his ruthless bargaining compels sweatshops to employ women garment makers for a maximum wage of £4/day for a 12 hour shift, are intercut with him guzzling champagne on his yacht in Monaco or preparing for the party in Greece and being grilled by a parliamentary select committee on his dubious financial practices. He is shown to even bargain for a few Rupees with the Sri Lankan rickshaw drivers for the ride fare. When a group of Syrian refugees end up on the beach in front of his party spot, he enlists the police and private securities to remove them as they are spoiling the view for his guests.
In addition to being provocative and hard-hitting by showing the worst excesses of capitalism, Greed is also laugh-out-loud funny thanks to Winterbottom supplying Sir Richard with outrageous quotes which Coogan delivers perfectly. He describes a light brown colour that one of his store managers suggests for the interior as “posh shit” and the fuchsia colour eventually chosen as looking like “inside of a vagina”. When his wife tells him that his breast job only cost £10,000, whereas his teeth makeover cost twice as much, he asks if she did hers in “Tits R Us!” He balks at paying $1m to Elton John or the same to Robbie Williams or $3m to Shakira to entertain guests at his birthday party. Though he feels that Tom Jones at £350,000 is more value for money! Therefore, lookalike tribute acts for Rod Stewart, Adele, and others are brought over. Though they realize with the George Michael lookalike that the real one is dead! When told that Keith Richard may be late for the party, Sir Richard lets out that “that fossilized arsehole better not be late!” (In real life Sir Philip Green had no qualms to splash out millions to Andrea Bocelli, Beyonce, Rhianna, Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, One Direction to perform at his various birthday parties held in exotic locations such as the French Riviera, Maldives, Cyprus or bar mitzvahs for his sons.)
We view Sir Richard’s life through the eyes of his biographer, Nick (David Mitchell). Greed is packed with scenes that are alternatively heartbreaking and funny; sometimes it’s both. For example, a scene where the Syrian refugees on the beach are forced to do many takes of a film being made of someone handing them a plate of chicken, where the refugees have to smile and thank the “charitable donor”. James Blunt sportingly has a very funny cameo as himself being paid £75,000 to serenade Sir Richard’s fiancée with “You’re Beautiful”!
There are many cameos in the film, specially in the birthday party. An interesting casting choice is Shirley Henderson playing Sir Richard’s mother. Henderson is actually younger, by one month, than Steve Coogan! Winterbottom has saved some of the hardest hitting true-life statistics about distribution of wealth, disparity between men and women in positions of wealth and power and conditions of workers in sweatshops for just before the end credits. Greed is disturbing, outrageous, highly entertaining and very funny. It is essential viewing for those interested in what it takes for the garments that we wear to reach the shops and the vast inequalities in distribution of the wealth made from their sale.