LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Philip Green made corporate history in 2005 when the British retail tycoon paid his wife a 1.2 billion pound dividend. So, it’s no surprise that “Greed” opens with a dramatised version of that event. The movie’s loathsome fictional villain dodging taxes and destroying high street businesses, Sir Richard McCreadie, is a barely disguised caricature of the Topshop owner. Director Michael Winterbottom’s real target, though, is the wider fashion industry.
It makes for an entertaining yarn. British actor Steve Coogan plays the perma-tanned mogul with such large white dental veneers that he resembles a cartoon character. After meeting the billionaire McCreadie - rhymes with greedy, geddit? - the film flashes back to the 1970s where the would-be mogul is attending an elite private school. Like Green, he lived a life of privilege until his father died and he dropped out of school. McCreadie sets his sights on making his fortune in the garment trade, buying and selling cheap discount clothes and demanding rock bottom prices from suppliers. “Nod and shake my hand,” he orders factory owners as they settle for half the sum they first demanded.
Anyone who followed Green’s career knows what to expect. McCreadie seems to relish humiliating his doe-eyed staff and has little care for the repercussions of his behaviour. His treatment of low-paid workers is galling. McCreadie organises a lavish gladiator-themed birthday party, complete with a real-life lion. When Greek builders cannot legally work beyond seven consecutive days, the tycoon lambasts European health and safety rules. He then seeks to recruit a family of Syrian refugees, recently washed up on the sun-drenched beach, to finish the job.
Yet it is McCreadie’s fame-obsessed ex-wife Sam, played by Isla Fisher, who epitomises the movie’s title. In one scene she giddily explains her thinking on tax obligations while lounging on a mega yacht, complete with a basketball court. “No one on any of these boats pay taxes. And that’s just the rules. I am just following the rules,” she explains.
Celebrities and the media are portrayed as willing enablers. Although stars like Elton John and Angelina Jolie abandon McCreadie in the end, it is clear they were once only too happy to attend his parties. A financially illiterate journalist who is writing McCreadie’s biography has no understanding of how the entrepreneur built his fortune.
But Winterbottom saves his real ire for the fashion industry. Like many real-life British retailers, McCreadie switches clothing production to Sri Lanka, where workers are paid 50 pence a day, a fraction of what employees at home would demand. Even then, the tycoon constantly demands lower prices from factory owners, forcing armies of female workers to speed up to meet targets. The film follows one woman who fails to keep up with demand and is then forced to work in a more dangerous factory. It catches fire and she suffocates, a grim reminder of the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 workers who were sewing jeans for brands like Primark.
McCreadie is asked why he takes advantage of such an inhume system. “It’s the market,” he barks. Fast fashion brands cannot avoid the same question. They rely on cheap labour in emerging markets to flog cheap shoes and dresses. Although Green provides much of the raw material for the film, it acknowledges that he is only one part of a more pervasive problem.
As the credits appear, viewers are bombarded with statistics: 80% of garment factory workers are women. The top 10 fashion brands in the world earned more than $18 billion in 2018. Green’s career has crumbled, and he has lost much of his empire. But the fashion industry’s problems persist. That creates an uncomfortable dilemma for McCreadie’s less colourful real-world counterparts.
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