Saturday, May 03, 2008

Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price

Robert Greenwald's 'Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price' isn't a particularly well-made documentary. Production values are bargain basement, the editing is often clumsy and the sound is murky, rendering the comments of some interviewees almost indecipherable. Structurally, it's all over the place; pacing didn't seem to be a concern during editing. An inordinate amount of screen time is given over to the history of a family-run hardware store put out of business by Wal-Mart's competition, but with little detail as to the actuality of their experiences with the retail giant. A catalogue of crimes committed in Wal-Mart car parks is slathering rolled out, but with scant emphasis on the scarcity of on-site security. This, surely, is the issue in question - not the misdemenours themselves. Wal-Mart are guilty of corporate crimes, but not car park purse-snatching.

Greenwald proves less a documentarist than a polemicist. 'Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price' makes Michael Moore's ouevre look objective by comparison. There's an over-reliance on tub-thumping and sloganeering. Footage of protestors successfully demonstrating against a planned Wal-Mart development is overlaid with the word "victory" in fiery letters; the effect is that of a bumbling amateur with no self-control let loose on Pinnacle Studio software for the first time. Greenwald is so well-served by his contributors, many of them former Wal-Mart employees (some at management level) who candidly reveal the corporation's callous attitude towards its staff, that all he really needed to do was film their testimonies, be a little more judicious with the editing, and maybe throw in a small but incisive amount of narration to tie the whole thing together.

Having said all that ...

Greenwald's film comes out swinging, a minimally-budgeted David, tooled-up on righteous indignation and not giving a shit about the consequences, inviting its corporate Goliath nemesis to step outside and put 'em up.

So, while 'Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price' is flawed as a piece of film-making, it deserves to be seen as a work of anti-corporationism. Critics have accused Greenwald of not soliciting Wal-Mart's side of things, but he does ... sort of. The film opens, and is interspersed with, footage of CEO Lee Scott talking up a self-congratulatory storm at a big conference. For every PR-sanctified platitude he comes out with, Greenwald's interviewees tell a different story.

Wal-Mart likes to refer to its employees as "associates" ... and treat them like slaves. Stores are deliberately understaffed to keep costs down, store managers struggling to keep within monthly expenditure budgets whilst hitting conversely-ratio'd income targets. Staff are coerced into working unpaid overtime (if you don't want to do it, runs the whispered threat, there's plenty of others who will). Unionisation is a dirty word - an anonymous bit of paper reading "we need a union" in the suggestions box is enough for head office to despatch an anti-union response team aboard a fucking Lear jet - this from a firm who pay their grass roots workers peanuts. A firm whose medical cover robs these workers of $75 out a week's pay packet, forcing many of them to use state medical programmes. A firm, basically, for whom the human element is subjugated to the sweaty, grasping pursuit of ever higher profits.

A lack of concern for the environment is in evidence. Overseas incursions epitomise Wal-Mart's campaign for aggressive growth. Cockney fruit stall holders protest a Wal-Mart owned Asda development which threatens their Upton Park market livelihood ... but they're nowhere near as hard-done-to as the Chinese workers enduring sweatshop conditions and cowed into lying to official visitors about their wages and working conditions - just so that Wal-Mart can save a few more cents.

Tales of racism and misogyny abound, merging in a particularly nasty two-for-one in the case of a highly capable, eloquent and motivated lady, all of whose appraisals cited her as management material. Continually passed over for promotion, she enquires of her manager whether it's because she's a woman or she's black. His response? "Two out of two ain't bad."

One of my heroes, the late American comedian Bill Hicks, once rounded on "anyone ... who works in advertising or marketing", exhorting them to "quit putting a fucking dollar sign in front of every god-damn thing on this planet". Here's Lee Scott, woefully unversed in the Gospel According to Bill: "We had record sales, we had record earnings, we had record re-investment back into our company" (this might be a euphemism for 'straight into the shareholder's pockets', I'm not sure) "but I tell you, my friends, you'd better be ready to be better." Which says it all really. Record profits aren't enough: the dollar sign has become a god, the corporations are blind to everything else, and their rampant wasteful money-grubbing is always at a human cost.

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