Chris Sullivan reviews a new comedy drama based on one of Britain’s most controversial modern businessmen.
Michael Winterbottom is a director compelled to make pictures that are more than entertaining; that cut to the core and make a statement.
Greed, his latest offering, is no exception. A scathing mockumentary that focuses on the foul Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie (nicely rendered by Steve Coogan), it’s quite simply a blatant attack on Sir Philip Green – “the unacceptable face of capitalism” – who Coogan caricatures.
Long overdue, Greed reveals the obscene chicanery and underhanded verbiage that has made Green one of the UK’s richest men. His alter ego, McCreadie, is a major league liquidator of companies and puts his company and its money in the hands of his wife so he can be beyond the reach of the authorities. It is classic tax avoidance. This saves the semi-fictional McCreadie some £540 million in tax, which is enough to build six new hospitals in the UK.
Aptly, the film revolves around a party that celebrates his 60th birthday on the island of Mykonos. Quite naturally, it’s a revolting affair based on Green’s 50th birthday, with a Roman theme – replete with a real life lion and a gladiator – where he is Caesar, the emperor of all he surveys, and all have to dress as Romans in togas and sandals. A vulgar function, it’s a nice dramatic device that serves to illustrate just how crass the man is underlining the maxim that ‘all the money in the world can’t buy class’.
Born in Croydon in 1952 to a well-to-do Jewish family of property developers and retailers, Green’s mother introduced self service petrol pumps, putting thousands out of work in the process, and Green inherited his family business after his father’s death when he was 12.
He was kicked out of a posh Jewish boarding school aged 15 and, at 21, set up his first business venture to import jeans from the Far East, paid for with the equivalent of a £240,000 loan backed by his family. Just like McCreadie, he bought up the complete stock of 10 clothing retailers who were in receivership, dry cleaned the lot, put them on hangers, wrapped them in polythene to make them look brand new and then purchased his very own shop to sell them in. In 1985, he bought Jean Jeanie, a struggling jeans chain, for £65,000, sold it for £7 million and then invested in retailer Amber Day.
He bought BHS in May 2000 and insisted it would not be “rocket science” to revive the ailing high street retailer that clothed generations of Brits. Simply a cash cow to be hung, drawn and slaughtered, between 2002 and 2004, £422 million in dividends were extracted by the company’s shareholders – most of which went to Green and his clan.
A damning Government investigation into the ruin of BHS determined that the company – once a household name – had been methodically pillaged by its owners. It found that Green’s “reputation as the king of retail lies in the ruins of BHS”.
“His family took out of BHS and Arcadia a fortune beyond the dreams of avarice and he’s still to make good his boast of ‘fixing’ the pension fund,” chided MP Frank Field, the then Chair of Parliament’s Work and Pensions Select Committee. “What kind of man is it who can count his fortune in billions but does not know what decent behaviour is?”
Green agreed to hand over £363 million in cash to rescue the BHS annuity scheme after the pensions regulator came for him, teeth bared. But, the regulator estimated that BHS staff would receive around 88% of the worth of their initial benefits in this new retirement fund created by the settlement. So, while Green luxuriates on his £100 million yacht, poor ladies who have walked the BHS shop floor all their working lives have seen their pensions dwindle. It is simply despicable.
In 2006, he was knighted for services to retail by Tony Blair. In 2010, David Cameron pulled him in to advise the Government on efficiency.
After the BHS scandal, MPs voted in favour of stripping Green of his knighthood. Incredibly, and totally unjustly, the man has held onto his title. This is a savage indictment of the morally infirm society we inhabit and shows just how worthless a knighthood is today.
What is also legal but thoroughly unethical – and is employed by Green and others – is the exploitation of third world workers who are paid £3 a day to create their clothing in conditions that are far from perfect. In the film, McCreadie travels to factories in Sri Lanka and batters down his costs to the clothing factories that forces the bosses to put pressure on the beleaguered seamstresses, one of whom dies as a result.
In essence, Greed is a bittersweet comedy with a pronounced barb that sticks in your throat like a lost hair. Although I was angry, I laughed on a good few occasions.
Coogan delivers a superlative performance that both creepy and snide is without fault. The script is spot on and the characters agonisingly real. But I still left it feeling resentful that such a man should be able to make billions through double dealing and tax evasion.
All in all, I hope it puts you off buying clothes from any high street chain owned by billionaires who exploit the poor under the auspices of good business practice and pushes you to join me in petitions to change laws governing tax havens.
‘Greed’ is in cinemas now