A biting satirical movie opening in Minneapolis this weekend aims to get audiences laughing. But it also wants them to wince over income inequality in the clothing business.
"Greed" is the latest collaboration between comedian Steve Coogan and director and screenwriter Michael Winterbottom.
In the film, Coogan plays a fashion tycoon named Sir Richard McCreadie who is so craven he even came up with his own nickname — "Greedy McCreadie."
The character is a British billionaire who adores media attention and “who has got to the top by being unscrupulous, and bullying,” Coogan said. “But he's also quite charismatic and funny. All told, not a very nice guy.”
"He was a parasite," says one of McCreadie’s former employees in the film.
"It's classic tax avoidance," says a journalist who follows McCreadie's career.
"Go away," McCreadie shouts at a journalist he dislikes. Later he stands on a balcony overlooking a bay on the Greek island where he's going to hold his 60th birthday celebration.
"Look at that," he says. "You can't buy a view like that. Oh, wait. No. I have."
Winterbottom said the story was sparked by a conversation he had with a journalist. They were meant to be chatting about Syria, but the journalist mentioned he had been covering a British government inquiry into the activities of a real British billionaire, Sir Philip Green.
Green owned a number of British clothes shop chains and faced allegations of following policies that made him huge profits on the backs of his employees.
Winterbottom said the journalist recounted how Green tried to control the story.
"He would get phone calls, often in the middle of the night, with Philip Green shouting down the phone, putting right the things that he saw as errors in the articles," Winterbottom said.
The character the journalist described — loud and obnoxious but strangely magnetic — got Winterbottom thinking. He had made a documentary about wage inequality but wanted to tell that story again.
He thought creating a satire about an over-the-top billionaire could give him a way to do it. In the retail fashion industry, he said, “you have really grotesque inequalities of wealth” between billionaire brand owners and the workers, most of whom are women.
“About 80 percent of the workers are women who work in countries like Sri Lanka, where we filmed, who get paid extremely low wages to make clothes for those brands,” Winterbottom said.
In “Greed,” Winterbottom combines the preparations for Greedy McCreadie's 60th birthday party with the experiences of a down-at-heel writer McCreadie commissioned to write his life story.
The writer's appalled at what he learns when he visits the Sri Lankan factories. But he guiltily enjoys the family’s sun-splashed excesses as they prepare for the “Gladiator”-themed party on a Greek island.
The writer witnesses the billionaire’s obsession with being wealthy and how disconnected he has become from ordinary life. At one point, the McCreadie family gathers over breakfast and discusses his daughter’s new career as a reality star:
"Well, I think it's pretty good for her. It gives her something to do and keeps her grounded," says her mother.
"Keeps her grounded?" asks McCreadie, dubiously.
"Yeah, if you look at the Kardashians, Kylie Jenner's got over a billion Instagram followers, and she's on the cover of Forbes," she says.
"Well, then she must be a very good person," McCreadie says.
"She's richer than you, Sweetie," comes the reply.
"That's not true is it?" McCreadie is suddenly interested.
"That can't be true," he responds.
"It is. She is richer than you." McCreadie is left looking bewildered.
Steve Coogan said the aim is to be funny.
"What we do in the movie is make people think about it but try to do it in a way that is entertaining rather than making it feel like a lecture," he said.
Coogan has now made nine films with Winterbottom, ranging from “24-Hour Party People,” which followed the eclectic career of TV presenter and music promoter Tony Wilson, to “Tristram Shandy: A cock and bull story,” where they made a movie out of the supposedly unfilmable Laurence Sterne novel published in 1759.
They have now made four “Trip” movies, which follow Coogan and his friend and foil Rob Brydon. Coogan says working with Winterbottom is very immersive, with inconspicuous cameras constantly on the move.
"Most movies when you are on the set, you look in three directions and you see the world you are in. You look in a fourth direction and you just see a crew, all (standing) behind the camera, which kind of breaks the reality,” he said. “When you work with Michael you can look around 360 degrees and you just won't see a crew member."
As a result, the images look much less staged.
While the film pointedly criticizes the clothing industry, Winterbottom said he doesn't want individual audience members to feel guilty about their clothing purchases.
"The whole point of the film is not like one shop, one brand is bad ... and if you avoid that brand you are OK. This is how the whole system works," he said.
Winterbottom hopes that "Greed" will make people laugh — and change that system.