A self-made British billionaire prepares for his 60th birthday extravaganza on the Greek island of Mykonos, after decades spent building up a vast personal fortune at other people’s expense.
You can understand why billionaire businessman Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie wants an authorised biography, the modern equivalent of the semi-regal portrait. It’s practically the only part of him likely to survive after he’s gone: the asset-stripped businesses sold, the clothes long ago fallen apart.
Despite his success he doesn’t even seem very happy, and is none too pleased to discover from ex-wife Sam (Isla Fisher) that Kylie Jenner is richer than he is.
Though it’s hard to see his facial reactions to news like this as his teeth are so blinding I nearly started this review with Orthodontists Assemble.
In fact the best way to work out where we are in the annoyingly jumping timelines of this toe-curlingly funny, grimly compelling but ultimately repetitive film is to wait until he opens his mouth. Are we pre- or post-veneers?
For the less business-minded among us, McCreadie’s approved biographer Nick (David Mitchell) – exquisitely, excruciatingly out of place in nearly every corner of the rich, fashionable, druggy, exhausted milieu he finds himself in – interviews the business editor of a national newspaper.
The journalist explains clearly if exasperatedly how McCreadie works, that most of it is unethical and all of it is legal; as he buys, strips and sells British businesses while sourcing ever-cheaper overseas factories.
Greed is of course a thinly – like, filo pastry thin – veiled portrait of a billionaire on fire, Sir Philip Green, though it’s the system that allows the Greens of the world to thrive at everyone else’s expense.
Sir Philip, owner of Topshop and various other high street names, has a Monaco-resident wife who gets to keep the dividends tax-free; in 2005 she was paid £1.2 billion. The start of Michael Winterbottom’s film sees McCreadie, owner of fashion firm Monda, publicly awarding Sam with the same on a giant cheque, such obscenely concentrated wealth something to applaud rather than hide.
Like wearing an on-trend frock I bought on impulse for 20 quid that only makes me itchy, watching Sir Richard is a discomfiting experience.
He’s awful but – in the early years when he’s fighting an Establishment even worse than he is – often likeable, and genuinely witty.
Later, part of a new Establishment, he’s a vile bully, publicly tearing apart some of his staff. Yet when fighting back against a parliamentary select committee – Billionaires Dissemble, perhaps? – he takes the opportunity to slag off Bono, and who doesn’t enjoy watching that?
As a teen at private school in the 1970s, Richard (a wickedly arresting Jamie Blackley) is already taking his classmates’ money in card games and magic tricks, a combination of sleight of hand and an overwhelming desire to win that later fuels his business life.
He’s beaten for being insolent to a teacher, with more insolence the only response. Then his father dies, and after one infraction too many his mother Margaret (Shirley Henderson) removes him from the school. She’s his greatest supporter, a tiny black-clad birdlike Irish woman.
Building his empire it’s not fashion he loves but deals. It’s easy to root for him, a boy from Ireland who feels out of place in a classist system.
But every time he metaphorically thumbs his nose at the established order, he then ruins it. Instead of just punching up he punches up, down and to the side, 24 hours a day.
I wanted him to win and then wanted him to lose, watching celebs play themselves sucking up to him at his 60th birthday party on Mykonos – their meta performances leaving me unsure what their “real” selves feel about the McCreadies of the world.
The film starts and ends with EM Forster’s epigraph “only connect” from Howards’ End, and everywhere in this enjoyably blunt satire are brightly highlighted connections and consequences.
The late Caroline Flack appears at the start, sending herself up as she presents that dividend to Sam. It shows the complexities and complicities of these entwined celebrity, business and Press relationships – with so many people involved no one can really be blamed when its dark side is revealed.
Amanda (Dinita Gohil) works for McCreadie as an assistant; She’s from Leicester, having been adopted from Sri Lanka as a child, where McCreadie gets much of his stock made by women forced to work ever more quickly for low pay.
Her distress when she is forced to dress as a slave girl for McCreadie’s party (in a tunic as thin and cheap as the dresses he sells) is truly upsetting, but the bumbling, well-meaning, white, middle class Nick never really understands even as he tries to comfort her. Will he be brave enough to tell the truth in his book? Would it make a difference if he did?
McCreadie’s growing loathsomeness means it’s tremendously enjoyable, watching disasters turn the run-up to his party into a British stage farce.
Obsessed with Gladiator, he’s ordered a plywood coliseum. There’s a lion called Clarence who is mostly asleep. A planeload of lookalikes is brought in to up the party’s celeb quotient. Unfortunately they’ve sent a George Michael, and even more unfortunately he’s the most realistic of them all.
Meanwhile Richard and Sam’s three kids are a disaster: Adrian is nowhere to be seen, Finn (Asa Butterfield) loathes his dad, and Lily (Sophie Cookson) is part of a scripted reality TV show about rich people, responding stiltedly to terrible lines fed to her by her dimwit boyfriend.
Syrian refugees camp on the beach outside the hotel, driving McCreadie to fury; in one watch-through-your-fingers scene Lily gives them meals for the reality show, only to snatch them back to reshoot.
Coogan, entertainingly hideous in a role that really only requires that he leave all nuance at the door and not choke on those teeth, gets most of the best lines. At times there’s almost a poetry to his verbal cruelty. I felt guilty laughing, then decided to give in, like when I spot a sale in Zara having promised myself not to buy any clothes for a year.
Isla Fisher is pitch perfect, funny and warm before showing Sam’s true colours. It’s obvious why Sam was such a good fit with Richard, moving from motherly fussing, through heartless unconcern to unpleasantly clear-sighted entitlement. “When people think you have money they give you more” she says from her yacht.
Dinita Gohil is terrific as Amanda, the real moral heart: realistic and unsentimental until she can’t do it any more.
Greed does become wearing in the middle, watching an avaricious billionaire swearing at his underlings, on and on and on, even if its intentions are good.
Luckily it perks up massively for the final 30 minutes, not unlike me in a fast-fashion Wonderbra knock-off. Maybe karma does exist? Now watch the next generation of entrepreneurs stick that on a t-shirt and sell it for two quid.
Stick around for the final title cards, showing the disparity between the billionaires and the people making their products.
Spoiler about that happens to Greedy McCreadie below!
Film clip: Richer than you (“tits” is bleeped out for its offensiveness – though Kardashian remains)
Film clip: I pay what I have to
Spoiler: He’s killed by Clarence the lion…