When depicting the ultra rich, filmmakers now imply billionaires suffer from such a lack of humanity that they can’t fathom decency. Michael Winterbottom’s Greed is the latest film in that tradition. It wants to strike a balance between entertainment and pedagogy, which ultimately weakens both goals.
The action centers on an extravagant 60th birthday party on the Greek island of Mykonos. The party is for Richard McCreadie (Steve Coogan), a clothing magnate who owns fast fashion chains in the mold of H&M or Zara. Richard’s party is absurd: He wants to construct a coliseum, complete with a real lion, and expects everyone to wear a toga (the incongruity of an ancient Roman theme on a Greek island is a subtle touch). Then there is the business of finding entertainment. Richard’s underlings cycle through one musician after another, quoting how much they cost to book, and no one is good enough. Greed intersperses the party’s lead-up with Richard’s early life, which is the story of how he morphed from an obnoxious dickhead into a powerful one.
Winterbottom’s comedies have a slight, shy depiction of bad behavior. Greed is no different. Coogan and the filmmaker have been collaborating for years—they’re best known for improvised comedies like The Trip—so they have little trouble unearthing Richard’s worst tendencies. There is a subplot where he wants Syrian immigrants to vacate the beach where they’re camping, and his solution is reverting back to his early life as a sneaky con artist. There is little difference between this and Richard’s more elaborate scams, and in case that point was not obvious, Winterbottom repeats it several more times.
The supporting characters either reflect Richard’s ugliness or serve as audience surrogates. Isla Fisher plays Samantha, Richard’s ex-wife, who is the unofficial mastermind behind their semi-legal schemes. David Mitchell plays Nick, a hapless reporter who has become Richard’s official biographer. Nick is not bright, and there are many scenes where he asks financial journalists to walk him through Richard’s dealings. This is where Greed closely resembles The Big Short, a better film that also stopped its plot to teach its audience. What made The Big Short so exciting is that filmmaker Adam McKay used knowledgeable outsiders to involve us in each new big revelation. No character in Greed has that level of insight, so it has all the depth of a comedy sketch.
Another key character is Naomi (Shanina Shaik), a former model who became an actress. She plays Richard’s underling, and is our entry point into how he exploits the poor. There are multiple scenes set in sweatshops, where people work long hours in terrible conditions for low wages. This is hardly revelatory, and has been a controversy in the fashion world for decades. The film’s condemnation of the rich just does not have the bite it should.
Greed looks too appealing for what Winterbottom wants. It unfolds like a travelogue, depicting a Greek holiday that I wouldn’t mind taking. Unlike HBO’s Succession, there is little acknowledgment that these people are also miserable, despite the private planes and fancy yachts. To learn about income inequality is to experience genuine outrage, and Winterbottom is not that kind of furious filmmaker. His mockery and insights are too gentle for that.
Greed opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.
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