I’ve got this friend who makes his own clothes. Not the generic kind cut from dowdy prairie-dress patterns, but chic, design-it-yourself garments that look better than most anything you’d find on a ready-to-wear rack. I figure he’s the only person I know who’s not guilty of contributing to the kind of sweatshop misery writer-director Michael Winterbottom attacks in his scattershot new satire “Greed,” a work of Swiftian apoplexy that gives frequent collaborator Steve Coogan — kitted out in fake tan and freakishly white choppers — a chance to chew the scenery and then some. He’s certainly got the teeth for it.
Coogan plays Sir Richard McCreadie, whose name rhymes with “greedy,” the man behind a brand called Monda, but there’s no real mystery about whom he’s skewering. The film’s big fat target is the billionaire bottom feeder Sir Philip Green, responsible for Topshop and half a dozen other retail labels (the British equivalent of worse offenders Zara and H&M) that have turned the exploitation of developing-world workers into an empire of cheap — and lousy — discount fashion. At least, that’s the gist of the joke here, although one can’t help wishing that it were funnier.
Granted, it would be hard to be more vicious, as the film amplifies the bewildering egotism of Green’s 50th-birthday bash, an extravagant toga party thrown on the island of Cyprus, where he dressed as Emperor Nero and surrounded himself with hundreds of rich sycophants, to be collectively serenaded by Rod Stewart. In the movie, McCreadie and ex-wife/co-owner Samantha (Isla Fisher) plan a similar shebang, going through the list of pop stars to see which they can afford to fly out to Mykonos, where the fashion mogul plans to fete his sweet 60.
After an introductory montage of disgusting self-aggrandizement meant to establish McCreadie as a sleazeball con artist, the film introduces the businessman’s hapless biographer, Nick (David Mitchell), through whose eyes we’re meant to experience the vaguely documentary-style proceedings. Whereas Nick’s expected to write a puff piece, the film offers audiences a more unfiltered glimpse at McCreadie’s inner world, complete with biting flashbacks — in which Jamie Blackley plays the already ruthless young Richard — informed by fictional interviews with various friends and cohorts.
Shot on digital video and edited with MTV-style aggressivity, “Greed” feels at times like an angry PowerPoint presentation, bombarding audiences with guilt-inducing facts about the modern fashion industry: “The world’s 26 richest men own as much wealth as the poorest 3.8 billion,” laborers in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh earn as little as 800 rupees a day, the industry is inherently sexist and so on. The soundtrack to such revelations? Abba’s “Money Money Money.” Winterbottom doesn’t mind being overly on-the-nose about all this, throwing in a tacky subplot about trying to chase off a bunch of Syrian refugees who’ve camped out on the beach adjoining the site of his island party. He even writes in an immigrant assistant named Amanda (Dinita Gohil), whose mother died in a factory fire back home in Bangladesh.
Amanda serves a key function in the film but doesn’t read like a real person — a shame, because she’s the most likable character — and the idea that she’s obliged to work a second job in a London sweatshop seems outrageous. That sort of real-world hardship feels incongruous with her presumably well-paid gig at Monda, and a defiant contradiction of the broad caricature that is McCreadie’s family drama: His celebutante daughter Lily (Sophie Cookson) is shooting a rigged reality show, while his barely-old-enough-to-shave son Finn (Asa Butterfield) has Oedipal designs on Dad’s supermodel girlfriend (Shanina Shaik). The scene-stealer here is Shirley Henderson as McCreadie’s outrageous old-crone mother, viciously encouraging behind a layer of droopy prosthetic skin.
While this circus unfolds around him, McCreadie focuses on his birthday, demanding that a small arena be custom-built on Mykonos, complete with live lion. It’s a disaster waiting to happen, and the inevitable question seems to be: Will “Greed” go so far as to let the lion attack the guests? Or better yet: Apart from Nick, is there anyone among this craven throng of 1-percenters whom Winterbottom would save? As public opinion awakens to the true cost of capitalism, such “kill the rich” comedy seems likely to be where the pendulum swings next.
But even as gleefully extreme as “Greed” gets with its critique, I doubt that two hours of cruel cut-downs aimed at a rich bozo most Americans haven’t heard of will do much to alter consumer habits. Most people already know how low-cost fashion works, and they shop anyway. “Greed” merely pokes fun at how the owners spend their money (as in a montage of those tacky celebrity videograms, featuring personalized birthday greetings from the likes of Colin Firth and Keira Knightley, who may or may not have been in on the joke).
The real thrill of “Greed” is getting to watch Winterbottom and Coogan re-reteam for the kind of reality-skewing caricature that kicked off their working relationship almost two decades earlier with 2002’s faux-factual Factory Records sendup “24 Hour Party People.” Coogan once again goes big and broad, dispensing a blistering barrage of explicit insults (“I’m not a gynecologist, but I know a c— when I see one”), the likes of which we’ve come to associate with Peter Baynham and Armando Iannucci, his accomplices on “I’m Alan Partridge.”
The actor’s always been a quick wit, and his timing couldn’t be better. So why does so much of “Greed” feel petty? If Green’s anything like McCreadie in real life, he’s got thick enough skin to withstand such heckling, but there’s something a little too easy in most of Winterbottom’s critique. “It’s all part of the brand,” McCreadie explains at one point, suggesting that the borderline-criminal act of asset stripping the company in order to live large could be written off as a kind of marketing. “It adds a little sparkle to a $10 party dress.” Or not. Winterbottom aims to tarnish that false illusion, launching the comedic equivalent of an animal rights activist paint-bombing a fur coat. The emperor is naked, “Greed” wants us to realize, but unless we agree to radically rethink our own wardrobes, does it make any difference?