In Oliver Stone’s 1987 film “Wall Street,” corporate raider Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, reveled in the pronouncement that “greed … is good.” It became a kind of mantra for those go-go years at the end of the Reagan era and immediately beyond.
Now, more than three decades later, in a world that’s been reshaped by 9/11, life-altering financial crises, and a staggering rise in both income disparity and corporate influence, writer-director Michael Winterbottom’s largely effective satire, bluntly titled “Greed,” tells us that greed is not only bad, but potentially fatal. Let’s just say the phrase “Eat the rich” takes on a whole new meaning here.
At first, this story about one of the world’s more notoriously awful one-percenters — a slippery and abusive fashion magnate named Sir Richard McCreadie (frequent Winterbottom collaborator Steve Coogan) — may feel like the last thing we need to sit through at this particularly fractious moment in time. Aren’t we bombarded with enough examples of obscene wealth, egregious inequality and unchecked narcissism every day via mainstream and social media?
Maybe. But after an uneasy start, Winterbottom’s kaleidoscopic script (“additional material” by Sean Gray), which revolves around an ultra-lavish 60th birthday party McCreadie throws himself on the Greek island of Mykonos in a desperate bid to repair his muddied public image, coalesces into a thoughtful, pointed, at times deceptively profound look at how the rich get richer and, well, you know what happens to the poor.
The film, equal parts mockumentary, mordant biopic and tragicomedy, moves back and forth in time to show how McCreadie became “the youngest self-made billionaire in British history,” while earning such other labels as “The King of High Street,” “the unacceptable face of capitalism” and “Greedy McCreadie,” the last hatched during his boarding school days as a ruthless gambler (well-played by Jamie Blackley as the younger McCreadie).
In “Big Short” style, we learn how McCreadie wheedled his way into the retail business, opening one brand of failed clothing store after another, yet netting more and more money in the process due to dubious — though not necessarily illegal — realty, hiring, tax and financial practices.
Via the egomaniacal McCreadie — and Coogan’s expertly hateful turn — the film vividly, unsettlingly shows how whoever holds the purse strings holds the power, and how one wields that power makes all the difference. To that end, McCreadie fails the humanity test miserably — he’s vile and cutthroat and seems proud of it. Nonetheless, he keeps himself and his savvy ex-wife, Samantha (a pitch-perfect Isla Fisher), kids (Asa Butterfield, Sophie Cookson, Matt Bentley) and crusty mom (Shirley Henderson) awash in mammoth wealth.
A series of flashbacks depicting McCreadie’s cruel behavior toward the hapless manager (Charlie Cooper) of a new fashion outlet called Xcellent (not) speaks volumes.
Much of the narrative, however, unfolds through the eyes of McCreadie’s “official biographer” Nick (David Mitchell), a self-effacing literature buff who has interviewed a few of the mogul’s old associates and visited a Sri Lankan sweatshop with ties to McCreadie before landing in Mykonos to observe his haughty subject and the manic swirl of excess around him.
The coordination of McCreadie’s spare-no-expense birthday bash with its crazy planning glitches is lampoon-worthy stuff, though not so out of whack compared to the wildly over-the-top lifestyles of the rich and famous we’ve become near-inured to by the heavily documented exploits of the Kardashians and others. Still, McCreadie’s celebrity-centric, “Gladiator”-themed party, with its faux amphitheater (the building of which is its own loopy story thread), toga costumes and actual lion, gives Winterbottom plenty of droll visual gags to work with.
But the film’s eventual heft — and perhaps raison d’etre — comes through the character of Amanda (Dinita Gohil), a young Sri Lankan-born woman now living in Britain, who works as an assistant to McCreadie. She will come to represent the real toll billionaires such as her boss cavalierly exact on the lowliest rung of society and its unsung web of consequences.
Yet, despite the movie’s sobering, end-credit statistics, we have no reason to believe the greedy won’t get greedier.
A host of familiar needle drops such as Abba’s “Money, Money, Money” and “London Calling” by the Clash can be a bit on-the-nose but still entertain.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood; The Landmark, West Los Angeles