Greed is ... good? Why Hollywood can't make its mind up about billionaires

Steve Rose
Photograph: Sony Pictures

Greed is not good in Greed. Director Michael Winterbottom’s new satire shows us wealth in all its vanity, venality and vulgarity, as flaunted by Steve Coogan’s besieged fashion tycoon – a thinly veiled Philip Green (there’s a mental image for you), with hints of Richard Branson, Richard Caring and Nero. Greed – scornful of modern excess and mindful of exploitation – is just the kind of parable we need right now. But movies have been sending out decidedly mixed messages about billionaires recently.

Take a look at Michael Bay’s latest outspaffing, 6 Underground, in which Ryan Reynolds plays a billionaire-playboy-genius type who assembles a vigilante squad dedicated to taking out “truly world-class evil motherfuckers”, however many frantically edited action set-pieces it takes. He could probably make the world a better place just by paying his taxes, but hey. Reynolds’s hero is clearly modelled on that other billionaire-playboy-genius role model of our age: Marvel’s Tony Stark, who – as we all know – is a fantasy version of Elon Musk, except with more civic responsibility and fewer “pedo-guy” jokes. The superhero billionaire club has been highly visible on screen lately. There is Bruce Wayne, of course, but also X-Men’s Charles Xavier, Arrow’s Oliver Queen, Iron Fist (AKA Kung-Fu Trust Fund Kid), and, putting a fresh new spin on feudal wealth, Black Panther.

Elsewhere, we find sex symbols such as Jamie Dornan’s Christian “Fifty Shades” Grey, the smouldering young zillionaire with the ability to reduce women to quivering, submissive slaves. And even the Wall Street of our times, The Big Short, jettisoned irony and celebrated the winners who got rich from the 2008 crash.

When the movies focus on real-life billionaires, the picture tends to look different: Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro (on the awfulness of Silvio Berlusconi); All the Money in the World (on the awfulness of the Gettys); The Aviator (on the batshitness of Howard Hughes); and the daddy of corrupting-wealth parables, Citizen Kane (which received a full-bore media assault from its real-life subject, William Randolph Hearst). Our modern tech titans also come off as maladjusted oddballs on screen, from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.

Greed, too, gives us the sordid reality rather than the idealised fantasy, although ironically Winterbottom was forced to pull some punches. The film’s end credits originally included statistics contrasting the paltry earnings of factory workers with the vast wealth of retail magnates such as H&M’s Stefan Persson ($18bn) and Zara’s Amancio Ortega ($67bn). But distributors Sony didn’t like this, and insisted the offending credits were removed; proof, perhaps, of whose side the studios are really on.