February 28, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Culture Representation: Taking place in England, Sri Lanka and the Greek island of Mykonos, the dark satirical comedy “Greed” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Southeast Asians and Syrians) representing the rich, middle-class and poor.
Culture Clash: “Greed” takes a scathing look at a ruthless billionaire retail mogul and the exploitation of poor laborers who helped build his empire.
Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to people who like comedies that address issues about social classes and poke fun at rich people, but the film overstuffs the story with too many flashbacks and distracting subplots.
On the surface, “Greed” (written and directed by Michael Winterbottom) might give the most screen time to the pompous billionaire who’s the central character, but the movie’s heart really lies with the anonymous laborers who are exploited to make this arrogant mogul (and others just like him) wealthy and mostly able to dodge accountability. The story, which is a dark satire, centers on British billionaire Sir Richard McCreadie (played by Steve Coogan), who has made his fortune with an empire of discount clothing stores whose chief rivals are H&M and Zara. He is so proud of being a ruthless businessman that he’s created a nickname for himself: “Greedy McCreadie.”
About half of the movie shows Richard on the Greek island of Mykonos, where he’s planning a lavish, star-studded 60th birthday party that will have a Roman toga theme. Things aren’t going so well, since the small amphitheater being constructed for the party probably won’t be finished in time. Many of the invited celebrity guests are canceling or declining their invitations. And the party is really a distraction from the Parliamentary inquiry that McCreadie has had to answer to about allegations of his company’s corruption and improper use of funds.
If you think all of this sounds like Sir Philip Green, the British billionaire founder of Arcadia Group (the parent company of Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Outfit and many more clothing stores), you would be right. Green went through a scandalous Parliamentary hearing in 2018 over mishandling of pension funds. That same year, a member of Parliament also named Green as someone with numerous employee accusations of racism and sexual harassment, with the complaints settled out of court. Winterbottom says that although Green inspired many aspects of “Greed,” the movie isn’t about him, and the Richard McCreadie character is a composite of billionaire moguls.
Greedy McCreadie has an orange-tinted fake tan, super-white dental veneers and a cocaine-snorting, supermodel trophy girlfriend named Naomi (played by Shanina Shaik), who’s young enough to be his daughter. He’s narcissistic, he judges people’s worth by how much money they have, and he treats people like disposable pawns in a game of chess.
In other words, he’s the epitome of what people despise about the type of super-rich people who think they’re cool but they’re actually superficial jerks. His 60th birthday party will be an ostentatious display of wealth. The event planner Melanie (played by Sarah Solemani) tells Richard that the party will be like “The Great Gatsby” meets “Gladiator” meets “The Godfather”—and Richard loves the idea.
And just like many billionaires, Richard wants to surround himself with celebrities. Melanie’s main job is to wrangle in as many famous people as possible to attend the party. She and Richard go down a list of possible performers in a somewhat hilarious takedown of what real-life celebrities charge for personal appearance fees. (Richard is appalled that Shakira charges as much as Elton John, and he’s thrilled that Tom Jones’ fee is a bargain in comparison.) There’s enough name dropping in this movie to fill the half-finished amphitheater for the party, which has a caged lion on display.
Several real-life celebs (mostly British) make cameos in the film, including Stephen Fry and Fatboy Slim, who are actually at the party. Most of the other stars—including Keira Knightley, Colin Firth and Coldplay’s Chris Martin—appear via video messages where they wish Richard a happy birthday. And when Richard thinks that not enough celebrities will be at the party, Richard gives Melanie the go-ahead to hire celebrity impersonators. One of the movie’s funniest scenes is when the fake celebs are gathered in a dressing room at the party and get various levels of approval by Richard.
The movie begins on a somewhat jarring note, with a celebrity cameo whose life came to a tragic end in real life. The opening scene is of Richard at a company event where he’s giving out awards to employees. The host of the award ceremony is British TV presenter Caroline Flack, who in real life tragically died by committing suicide at the age of 40 on February 15, 2020. At the ceremony, Richard announces that he’s giving a huge chunk of his company dividends to his ex-wife Samantha (played by Isla Fisher), making it the largest dividend payout from a privately held company.
Samantha (who is the mother of the youngest of Richard’s three kids) is among the family members who will be at Richard’s 60th birthday bash. They include his domineering widowed mother Margaret (played by Shirley Henderson); his insecure teenage son named Finn (played by Asa Butterfield); and his spoiled 20-something daughter Lily (played by Sophie Cookson). Richard has another child, a pouty son in his 20s named Adrian (played by Matt Bentley), who shows up later in the story. Samantha has also brought her much-younger lover named François (played by Christophe de Choisy) to the party.
Richard’s entourage includes his vapid girlfriend Naomi and his kind-hearted and hard-working personal assistant Amanda (played by Dinita Gohil), who’s risen to this position after starting off as a factory employee for his company. She’s part of a subplot involving extremely underpaid workers (most of them women) in Sri Lanka who make the clothes that Richard’s company sells.
Richard’s official biographer Nick (played by David Mitchell), who’s an opportunistic journalist, is also tagging along at the party. Half of the time, Nick wonders what he’s gotten himself into with this assignment, because he’s witnessing some very unflattering things about Richard that would be tricky to put in the biography. Richard is essentially the Boss From Hell, who does a lot of yelling and hurling of insults when things don’t go his way. He’s also the type of toxic head honcho who will demand that things be done a certain way, forget that it was his decision, and then blame it on someone else if things go wrong.
Although “Greed” might sound like a clever concept to expose the corrupt side of the fashion industry, the execution of the idea is unfortunately a little too haphazard and overstuffed. There are so many flashbacks in the movie, that even the flashbacks have flashbacks. They include seeing how a young Richard (played by Jamie Blackley) went from being expelled from school at age 16 to becoming a hotshot and unscrupulous wheeler dealer in the discount fashion business.
Richard is a tough negotiator and he has no qualms about exploiting workers so he can get cheap labor and increase profits. There are also scenes of Richard facing the Parliament investigation into his shady business practices. Richard is almost proud of the fact that he gets people to invest millions in his companies, he keeps the profits, but then when the investors want their share of the profits, he shuts down the business by declaring bankruptcy.
There’s one scene where a female protestor crashes into the hearings and throws a pie in Richard’s face. It’s the movie’s obvious spoof of what happened in real life to billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch in 2011, during his own Parliamentary hearing. Greedy McCreadie, ever the name dropper, tells Parliament that at least he’s more honest than Richard Branson and Bono when it comes to investors’ money.
And then the movie has subplots about other people during the party preparations in Mykonos. Several refugees from Syria have camped out at the public beach near the party site. Richard wants the refugees to move because he thinks they’ll ruin the party atmosphere. But since it’s a public beach, the refugees refuse to leave. But then, a plan is put in motion that will get them off the beach, by hiring the refugees as kitchen workers for the party.
Lily is a star of a reality show, so the TV cameras have followed her to Mykonos. The show’s annoying producers and director frequently bark orders at Lily, her TV boyfriend and her friends to redo their pre-fabricated scenes when the director needs another take. (This usually happens when someone who’s not part of the show’s cast “ruins” a shot by accidentally walking into a scene while filming.) One of the staged scenes includes Lily handing out food to the refugees to make her look charitable. But when the producers want her to film the scene again, she has to take back the food, which angers the refugees, who don’t know that they’re being used as part of the staged scene.
The movie also shows Richard’s difficult and complicated relationship with his youngest child Finn, who’s constantly seeking his father’s approval and attention and not getting much of either. Finn, who both admires and fears his father, gets a little bit of Oedipal revenge when he makes moves on Richard’s trophy girlfriend Naomi while Finn is high on some of her cocaine.
Meanwhile, Richard and his ex-wife Samantha clearly have unfinished personal business. When they’re alone together, they flirt and give each other loving kisses. Samantha also tries to be the “cool ex-wife” by being very friendly to Naomi, probably because she knows that Naomi is just a fling, while Samantha still has a hold on Richard because she’s a big part of his business and she’s the mother of one of his children.
And if all these shenanigans weren’t enough, during the party preparations, there are plenty of meltdowns from logistics coordinator Sam (played by Tim Key), who’s frantic about the amphitheater being finished on time, as well as issues with laborers who are unhappy with their wages and unrealistic time constraints.
In the production notes of “Greed,” Winterbottom says that when he was seeking financing for the movie, he told potential investors that the tone of “Greed” would be similar to “The Big Short,” writer/director Adam McKay’s 2015 Oscar-winning satire of Wall Street’s manipulation of the U.S. housing market. The biggest differences between “The Big Short” and “Greed” (besides “The Big Short” being a much-better movie) are that in “Greed,” there’s no breaking down of a fourth wall with characters talking directly to the viewers, and “Greed” tries to do too much with the characters in the story instead of keeping it more focused. This is supposed to be a movie, not a TV series.
Although there are some snappy and witty lines in “Greed,” the movie’s overall tone has the same smugness that it lampoons in Greedy McCreadie. The movie spends so much time inflating and skewering the super-rich and their flunkies that it feels almost like a pandering afterthought when the film tries to counterbalance the satire at the end, with sobering statistics about laborer exploitation in the fashion industry. The materialistic and selfish characters in “Greed” are like people who’ve overstayed their welcome at their own party. And viewers of this movie will find most of these characters so unappealing that they’ll be glad when this party is over.
Sony Pictures Classics released “Greed” in select U.S. cinemas on February 28, 2020.