In 2013, it took barely 90 seconds for the Rana Plaza garment factory to collapse and kill more than 1,100 workers in Bangladesh; in his new satire Greed it takes director Michael Winterbottom little more than 90 minutes to comprehensively bring to life how the world of fast-fashion works – and why it keeps going, in spite of awareness campaigns and frequent human tragedy. Think Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous by way of Wall Street, but instead of aspirational exultation, it’s a cautionary late-capitalist tale.
Greed charts the rise and fall of a fictional retail billionaire played with gusto, deep tan and gleaming prosthetic chiclet teeth by Steve Coogan, a bellicose bully modelled with thinly veiled inspiration on Caprice Holdings tycoon Richard Caring and disgraced Topshop honcho Philip Green.
The movie’s main framing device is a countdown to the star-studded birthday party Sir Richard McCreadie (Coogan) is throwing himself in Greece, in an attempt to repair the reputational damage of a recent investigation into his questionable business tactics. The low-budget film, however, cost less than Green’s actual 50th birthday party in Mexico did: the movie’s super-yacht was a £75,000-a-day rental but the yellow 1977 Lotus Esprit S1, Winterbottom laughs, belonged to Coogan and cost them nothing to use.
In flashbacks of the tycoon’s transgressions during his rise, Winterbottom points out how he had McCreadie’s career start around the beginnings of Thatcherism and Reaganism – “this idea of this obsession with the market,” he says. “That the market is God, the market is right, don’t regulate the market. And I think since the financial crisis, there is a shift in that people are fed up, ordinary people do feel like the market doesn’t always work for them and want a change.”
While scenes of expository parliamentary hearings explain asset stripping and how the industry-standard piecework sewing undermines fair wages and safe working conditions for its largely female workforce, the movie makes side trips to a preposterous yacht that has a basketball court, as well as to actual garment factories and a worker village in Sri Lanka. And it’s all bookended with the epigraph from E.M. Forster’s Howards End: “Only connect.” The now-famous phrase, Winterbottom says, is intended literally – to see the connections between how shopping the high street enables a select few to live the high life.
Layers of factual information such as wage and wealth statistics are folded in. But unlike his previous movies – such as The Shock Doctrine’s attempt to illustrate the idea of disaster capitalism, or The Emperor’s New Clothes with Russell Brand, which explored the financial crisis by mixing comedy with Thomas Piketty through documentary – Winterbottom says he wanted to engage with the inequality of the world in a more entertaining way than straight documentary.
“I liked the idea because we’re trying to juxtapose the world of the women in Sri Lanka and the world of the billionaire on a yacht in Monaco – two things you’d not normally see in the same story. That seemed to be part of the challenge of making it, to try and drag all these elements into the same film and show that there are genuine links between them.”
A cross-cut between a billionaire’s party in Mykonos and women working in factories in Sri Lanka, for example. “That’s one of the shocking things,” he adds. “Why do we allow – because we do allow, in the end – these grotesque inequalities to continue.”
When we speak, the garment industry worker exploitation at the heart of Greed is in the news again, after the death of seven workers in a denim garment plant fire in India, where workers earn 35 U.S. cents an hour and work 14 hours a day in dangerous conditions (preliminary investigations allege the factory cut costs and violated many safety regulations).
That Greed walks the tonal tightrope of being as sobering as the news while also having extremely funny moments is perhaps down to frequent collaborator Coogan’s gleeful rendering of McCreadie as bombastic egomaniac. “The idea was to make him enjoyable, but not sympathetic,” the filmmaker says, and not to humanize him. “The film in a way is structured a bit like a farce – I want people to want the party to go wrong as it unfolds and preparations go wrong.” The rest is the mix of throwaway lines, wry humour and extended bits delivered by the ensemble cast of well-known British comedic talents. (“What’s the Greek word for that?” “Taramasalata?” “No, hubris.”)
“We were really lucky to have people like David Mitchell, Asim Chaudhry and Tim Key,” Winterbottom says. “There was a reasonable amount of improvisation but I would have loved more.” As in several previous movies, a journalist acts as a sort of Virgil guide – here, Nick (played by comedian Mitchell) is both McCreadie’s biographer and audience stand-in, as he simultaneously faces his own disillusionment and complicity. “He sort of goes along with things and can see what the faults are, is basically a nice guy but doesn’t know what to do. I think a lot of us are in that position,” Winterbottom says. “It’s like, what can we do about it?”
Is there an optimistic answer? “What you need is a sort of political change, and a desire to change things,” he says. “Part of that is to keep reminding people that no matter how ludicrous the fictional element is, how farcical the fictional element is – like this party – that the real world is more ludicrous and it happens,” he adds. “The parties are more lavish, the inequality is bigger than we can actually capture in our film.”
Greed opens March 6.
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