Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Michael Winterbottom has a bone to pick with Sir Philip Green. A polarizing figure in Britain, Green made his millions at the helm of a conglomerate of affordable highstreet clothing brands (Arcadia Group), but has recently become the gelatinous embodiment of capitalism’s garish side. From accusations of asset stripping, the infamous British Home Store (BHS) pension scandal, and allegations of racial, sexual and physical abuse from former employees, Green is no stranger to scandalous tabloid headlines. Recently, Arcadia Group went into administration in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. Whilst anxious employees were left in a limbo of uncertainty over their futures, Green was photographed relaxing on his super yacht, unscathed by the companies’ collapse. Public furore towards Green is at such an apogee that nearly 250,000 people have signed a petition to strip him of his the knighthood he was awarded back in 2006. Despite this rather long-winded preamble, Greed is not a documentary about Sir Philip Green — nor is it a work of biographical fiction — but it is unmistakable who Winterbottom is lampooning in this fist-shaking, very British comedy about a narcissistic and exploitative entrepreneur who has taken off to Greece to celebrate his sixtieth birthday in style by hosting a celebrity strewn, glitzy reconstruction of the gladiator games, adorned with an impressive, purpose-built colosseum, as well as, a real lion.
There is perhaps no better man to play Sir Richard McCreadie — an acerbic fat cat with illusions of grandeur — than the venerable Steve Coogan, someone who has publicly bemoaned inequality, and lambasted international companies who actively seek to avoid corporation tax through legal loopholes and offshore accounts. Following McCreadie, as he loafs around the Greek island watching his crude vanity project take shape, is his biographer Nick (David Mitchell). As well as being a bit of a shit — the sort that shoo’s displaced refugees off of a public beach because they ruin the paradisiacal aesthetic — McCreadie is also a consummate idiot. McCreadie throughout the film continuously flaunts his most vulgar and self-aggrandising flaws to the man composing his personal history — a document, one would assume, McCreadie desires to be rendered favourably for posterity. Instead, Nick is led down a rabbit hole of exploitation, deception and scandal. McCreadie’s biggest sin is his exploitation of cheap foriegn labour: asian women living in impoverished slums who work ungodly hours to ensure the wheels of production are greased. Sipping bubbly with McCreadie in the jacuzzi of corruption — and holding the loofah — is his archetypally beautiful, wag of a wife (Isla Fisher) who is only thrown into the equation as a bombshell supplement to McCreadie’s insatiable vanity. Other than that she offers nothing. Shirley Henderson pops up as McCreadie’s scowling matriarch of a mother, but she is equally fleshless. Other bit-parts are populated by some of Britain’s brightest emerging talents, such as Asim Chaudry, Tim Key and Charlie Cooper, but these feel like under-utilized cameos in an endless stream of look what a shit he is vignettes.
The problem with Winterbottom’s Greed is that its protagonist is too much of a feelingless caricature; a mean ball of joyless hubris who cringely quotes Gladiator, and is too charmless ever to be believable as a smooth business operator. It is the primary reason why laughs are few and infrequent in Winterbottom’s comedy, it is too divorced from reality. McCreadie is the kind of slimy character one can only imagine up; oozing nothing but vice, and little else. The kind of character good rich people invent to make them feel better about their wealth. Winterbottoms’ cause is valiant, but his execution is often impotent and obvious. Instead of questioning your own mindless complicity in sweatshop exploitation; instead of being filled with moral indignation and outrage — as is Winterbottom’s intention — Greed leaves you bemused. Nothing more.