Greed mauls corpulent corpse of affluence

Movie review: Greed

Michael Winterbottom gives the billionaire class a kick in their overweighted assets in Greed, a black comedy that tries to address systemic inequality through an unsympathetic character modelled after the founder of Top Shop. It’s an interesting movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s an artistic, or even a rhetorical, success.

Greed

3/5

Starring: Steve Coogan, David Mitchell, Isla Fisher, Shirley Henderson, Asa Butterfield

Directed by: Michael Winterbottom

Running time: 1 hr 44 mins

Rating: Restricted

By Katherine Monk

Michael Winterbottom is easily one of the most interesting filmmakers working today, not only because he often tackles real-world headlines through narrative fiction, but because he often fails.

That’s right, he’s a hit and miss artist who frequently pummels a message so hard, he turns it into mushy pulp. Look at Shock Doctrine (the Naomi Klein documentary which barely opened) or Face of an Angel (an Amanda Knox movie that scraped the bottom of the moral barrel). They were not successful films, yet you felt there was a creative urgency behind them that had to be respected.

Greed is, without doubt, interesting. Even its origin story is fascinating: Winterbottom wanted to make another movie about the Middle East, started chatting with an English journalist named Peter Oborne, and somehow spent an afternoon talking about English billionaire Philip Green, the fashion mogul who created UK chains such as Top Shop, Miss Selfridge and at one time, BHS. Oborne knew Green, shared some of his insecurities with Winterbottom — and within a few months, Winterbottom was asking his old friend, and Trip movies collaborator, Steve Coogan to play a character named Sir Richard McCreadie — a knighted billionaire facing some serious financial troubles as well as a tabloid scandal or two.

Arrogant, tinted tangerine, and sporting a mouthful of snow-white caps, McCreadie is a familiar composite of the most villainous traits we now celebrate as “winning.” He lies, cheats, bullies and scams trusting souls at every turn in order to make a buck. Winterbottom has fun taking us back to the neon fuchsia looks of the early ‘90s as he offers vignettes of McCreadie’s rise through deep-fried flashbacks — crispy little clumps of ideas and set design that give us a small taste of how we got here.

Arrogant, tinted tangerine, and sporting a mouthful of snow-white caps, McCreadie is a familiar composite of the most villainous traits we now celebrate as “winning.” He lies, cheats, bullies and scams trusting souls at every turn in order to make a buck.

And when I say “here” in a Winterbottom movie, that means the big “here” — our current geopolitical reality. McCreadie becomes a useful vehicle to explore universal themes such as income inequality, disposable fashion, globalization, third world exploitation, tax loopholes for the super-rich, refugee crises and the enduring injustices propagated by systemic sexism and xenophobia.

For instance, we watch Greedy McCreadie set up cheap factories in South Asia, pay his ex-wife billions to avoid taxes, and at the top of the film, harass Syrian refugees who’ve set up camp on a beach on Mykonos.

Sir Richard wants to hold a big 60th birthday party to prove he’s still a player — despite recent setbacks — so he’s hired a small crew to build an amphitheatre on the beach. He’s planning a gladiator- themed soiree, complete with a live lion to impress his fancy friends. The only problem is a lot of his “friends” are bailing because he’s bad optics, forcing his party planners to hire lookalikes and hide them in the dimmer parts of the VIP area.

There’s also that pesky problem of the Syrian family camping on the beach with their UN emergency blankets and clutch of small children screaming. McCreadie thinks they look like beach garbage, so he forces them off the sand — and into his employ.

Because Sir Richard is a cad and a bully, and because Steve Coogan can play loathsome better than anyone, watching the billionaire’s double-coiled life go down the toilet isn’t an unpleasant thing to watch.

Because Sir Richard is a cad and a bully, and because Steve Coogan can play loathsome better than anyone, watching the billionaire’s double-coiled life go down the toilet isn’t an unpleasant thing to watch.

If anything, you almost wish it were more unpleasant. I craved a crucible of catharsis by the time this one was over, and while Sir Richard gets the end he deserves, the film would have been so much stronger if Winterbottom articulated the whole argument within the frames of the film. He paints a pretty one-sided picture that doesn’t force us to ask any questions of ourselves. We can sit back and point a self-satisfied finger at Greedy McCreadie, without recognizing our own role in the dehumanization.

We’re the over-consuming masses. We’re responsible for creating the demand for cheap goods that morally bankrupt businessmen like McCreadie satisfy on the backs of sweatshop labour. We should feel complicit in this mess, but Winterbottom shields us from all culpability by nailing McCreadie to the cross of popular resentment.

We’re responsible for creating the demand for cheap goods that morally bankrupt businessmen like McCreadie satisfy on the backs of sweatshop labour. We should feel complicit in this mess, but Winterbottom shields us from all culpability by nailing McCreadie to the cross of popular resentment.

Blaming billionaires for the world’s woes has become a cottage industry for politicians, activists, Internet trolls and the incurably grumpy, but it all feels a little too easy. The uber rich are the manifestations of income inequality, but they aren’t the cause. Greed makes a lazy attempt to show us how the world’s resources, and our future as humans, has been sold off for a momentary profit, but it’s not smart enough to build a really good case that prompts its audience to take action.

At its worst, Greed is a cheap attempt to exploit the exploiters for profit. At its best, it’s a mildly entertaining satire from a master of hits and misses.

@katherinemonk

To read more of Katherine’s reviews, check out the Ex-Press archive, or sample career work at Rotten Tomatoes. 
THE EX-PRESS, March 6, 2020

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Michael Winterbottom gives the billionaire class a kick in their overweighted assets in Greed, a black comedy that tries to address systemic inequality through an unsympathetic character modelled after the founder of Top Shop. It’s an interesting movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s an artistic, or even a rhetorical, success. - Katherine Monk

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