“What’s that Greek word?” asks Sarah Solemani’s party planner during one of Greed’s many sharp, quick-fire conversation scenes – not ‘Taramasalata?’ (as per the first suggestion she receives), the word she’s looking for is ‘Hubris’ – meaning, essentially, the overblown pride that comes before a fall. It’s a theme that runs throughout this satire of the super-rich, and specifically a fictionalized version of British billionaire highstreet fashion tycoon Philip Green.
Steve Coogan reunites with his frequent collaborator director Michael Winterbottom to play Green proxy Richard ‘Greedy’ McCreadie for a comedy with a very serious point that for the most part works on both levels, though a heavily signposted final act with some dubious morality ultimately muddies the water.
Non-linear and jumping between timelines, the main narrative sees McCreadie gearing up to throw a lavish 60th Birthday party on the Greek Island of Mykonos, complete with celebrity guests, high profile music acts, an actual replica amphitheatre built specially, and a lion.
He’s going for Gladiator meets Gatsby meets The Godfather but when plans go awry due to contractors being ill-treated and underpaid things start looking a little bit more like FyreFest.
Opposite all this opulence is a group of Syrian refugees (played by actual Syrian refugees) camping out on the public beach just below McCreadie’s mansion, people who literally have nothing and who McCreadie tricks into working for him for free.
British viewers who are most familiar with Coogan’s flawed, incompetent but ultimately somewhat sympathetic characters like Alan Partridge, Paul Calf, Tommy Saxondale and the fictionalized version of himself in The Trip should enjoy being wrongfooted by McCreadie. Not the socially inept but vaguely loveable fool, McCreadie is an utter bastard which becomes increasingly apparent as the movie progresses.
Intercut with scenes of party prep are McCreadie appearing in front of a select committee answering questions about his dodgy business practices and McCreadie’s biographer Nick (David Mitchell) getting to grips with the story behind his success. Nick is the audience’s way in to understanding the complexities of ‘The Market’ – and it is pretty complex. One scene where Paul Higgins’ (from The Thick Of It) financial journalist explains asset stripping, tax avoidance and how people can be billionaires while at the same time bankrupting their businesses and laying off hundreds of staff members feels like something out of The Big Short.
Nick travels to Sri Lanka to meet the women who work in the sweatshops manufacturing McCreadie’s clothing lines – all the workers are played by real factory workers – paid an absolute pittance by McCreadie’s unfair empire.
Then on the other end of the spectrum are the super-rich – and the super-famous who orbit them and legitimise them. Unlike something like the Absolutely Fabulous movie where the cameos were myriad and distracting, the celebs playing themselves in Greed serve a clear purpose – namely to hammer home how despicable but insanely wealthy men like McCreadie (and many more real-life examples) are often surrounded by and (tacitly at the very least) endorsed by the stars who attend their high end parties or accept fees for appearances. Stephen Fry is particularly memorable but so is the late Caroline Flack in a small role sending herself up as a presenter.
The music business isn’t exempt here either, with cameos aplenty from that side of the entertainment industry and the spotlight on performers agreeing to play private parties for fat cat businessmen if they’re given exorbitant compensation. In real life performers including One Direction, Destiny’s Child, Rod Stewart and Tom Jones have all played at Philip Green’s events.
Made In Chelsea’s Ollie Locke is surprisingly funny, not playing himself, or even the fictionalised Made In Chelsea version of himself but a version of that once removed: a gay reality TV star called Fabian pretending to date McCreadie’s flaky daughter Lily (Sophie Cookson) for a show. It’s all very meta.
There’s a great supporting cast of familiar faces too, with the standouts Shirley Henderson as McCreadie’s beligerant Irish mother convincingly aged up for different time periods, Isla Fisher as his beautiful but amoral ex-wife and Asa Butterfield as McCreadie’s disgruntled son spouting Oedipus and contemplating the virtues of patricide.
What begins to play out as a Greek tragedy leans more into fantasy territory as the party finally commences and while it’s enjoyably chaotic and pacey to watch, the narrative – particularly a thread featuring McCreadie staffer Amanda (Dinita Gohil) – becomes so contrived that it somewhat detracts from the real issues on display during the rest of the film.
When the end titles hit you – a set of shocking stats about the horrendous wealth divide between the very poorest, largely female, labourers helping to make the very richest, largely male, billionaires their cash – it’s perhaps not the gut punch it could have been.
Catharsis is another Greek word, one essentially meaning the purging of the emotions, in this instance via storytelling. While hubris, and catharsis can make for great viewing – and Greed is very entertaining – rather than leaving the theatre incensed and hungry for change, you may find yourself arguing about morality between characters who don’t even exist.
A film with noble goals that should reach a wider audience than just those who might want to devour a straight documentary about corrosive capitalism, if you have an appetite for a smart, satirical look at a serious subject, Greed is good.
Greed opens in cinemas on 21 February