Steve Coogan’s film career has been a hit-and-miss affair. But his ongoing relationship with director Michael Winterbottom in the likes of 24 Hour Party People and The Trip has, by general consensus, been the most consistently rewarding strand. Thus it proves again in Greed, their sixth film together and an entertaining one which tackles the burning issue of inequality in the world not merely with righteous anger, but with searing humour.
Coogan, with a set of dazzlingly white teeth and a Trump-esque tan, plays self-made British billionaire Sir Richard ‘Greedy’ McCreadie who for 30 years has ruled the world of retail fashion. But after a damaging public inquiry into his working methods, his image is tarnished and his retail empire is in crisis. To save his reputation, he decides to bounce back with a highly publicised and extravagant party celebrating his 60th birthday on the Greek island of Mykonos.
Winterbottom says that the inspiration for this satire on the grotesque inequality of wealth in the fashion business (an industry that’s apparently worth around £26 billion annually in the UK alone) came from a chance conversation the director had in the summer of 2016 with journalist and political commentator Peter Oborne in which talk was briefly diverted to the subject of Sir Philip Green, once the billionaire owner of the Arcadia Group (owner of Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins and many more) who had been called before a Parliamentary Select Committee about the collapse of one of its biggest brands, BHS.
Launching the film with Coogan at the London Film Festival, Winterbottom recalls: “Peter mentioned that Green was quite a colourful character who would often call him up in the middle of the night, haranguing him about what he perceived as various inaccuracies in his articles.” A film about a larger-than-life businessman like that “just struck me as a rich and quite simple way of looking at what is quite a complex subject because you’re seeing it through the eyes of a billionaire who’s very hands on and who has built his business through the 80s, 90s and into the 00s.
“In a way, Richard McCreadie represents how the markets work, how the world has changed, how capitalism has changed, how globalisation has changed the world, and so on. He’s a man of his time, from his dodgy, cheap beginnings in the 80s with the whole rise of free-market Thatcherism and globalisation, without any great skills, just a determination to get rich. You could draw together various different strands, whether it’s women workers in Sri Lanka, or dodgy business deals, or leveraged takeovers on the British high street, from the point of view of one fictional character.”
Although there are obvious similarities between McCreadie and Green, Winterbottom is keen to point out that Greed should not be seen as a thinly veiled attack on one specific individual.
“In general,” he clarifies, “the subject of the film is inequality and the way in which free market fundamentalism has worked over the last 30 years.”
Thankfully, this is no dour documentary and the film has a thread of biting humour often arising from the quick-witted, foul-mouthed way in which this ghastly character interacts with the world beyond his immediate self-interest, including with his first wife Samantha (Isla Fisher), his official biographer Nick (David Mitchell) and, of course, his many luckless lackeys.
“You could say it’s like a jokey version of Citizen Kane, looking back on someone’s career. Or The Social Network,” says Winterbottom, who also invokes The Big Short, a dramatic film using comedy actors.
“When you’re playing someone who ostensibly seems quite odious,” Coogan says, “you have to mitigate that so the audience is entertained by him while being repelled by him at the same time.”
The character he plays with such aplomb is, he points out, “more of a public schoolboy who likes to feel quite Jack the Lad. He is quite street smart. He’s a wheeler-dealer and he has a certain amount of wit. Someone like, for example, Philip Green, does have a certain amount of wit in his own bombastic way. You could say, if you’re being kind, that he has a certain kind of charisma that allows him a certain licence, for a certain period, to behave in a way that most people would consider unacceptable. But this kind of exploitative slave labour that makes people rich doesn’t bother them. People involved in this world, they sleep like babies. The only kind of success Richard McCreadie knows is material success, I don’t think there’s a spiritual bone in his body.
“One thing I’ve noticed when I’ve interacted with super-rich people is they can be great fun. But just because someone’s fun, it doesn’t mean they’re not nefarious.”
Don’t be scared, though, Greed is not merely some didactic tract. There are some terrific gags amid the many barbs and there are performances to relish including Shirley Henderson as McCreadie’s terrifying mum. Meanwhile, the likes of Pixie Lott, Fatboy Slim, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Chris Martin and Stephen Fry generously send themselves up as the sort of celebrities who shore up and obfuscate the bad behaviour of the likes of McCreadie by allowing themselves to be paid vast sums of money to appear at their self-serving events. “Strangely, famous celebrities, on the whole, would rather go to a billionaire’s party than to a low-budget British film set,” says Winterbottom with a laugh.
Greed is on general release