Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price
2005Director: Robert Greenwald
Cast: Wal-Mart employees, customers, Corporate America
s capitalism evil? For most of those regularly skipping out for their weekly shop at that behemoth of a big-box discount store that is Wal-Mart, accusations of corporate greed and unethical labour practices are concepts of an economics degree. This being a store at which a jar of pickles the size of a smaller swimming pool retails at around a measly $2.99, it’s not hard to see why. As divisive as any discussion on, say, abortion or gay rights, Wal-Mart is also synonymous with evil corporate America and capitalism gone wrong, for increasingly more than just the Chomsky-buying, leftist-swinging, capitalism-berating few amongst us.
Loved and hated in equal measure, with hundreds of billions in annual profits, Wal-Mart wields its power for just one purpose: to bring the lowest possible prices to its customers. It is no news that its business model has long been assailed for paying less than a living wage, crushing mom-and-pop stores by using sweatshop-made goods from the Far East, providing a bare minimum of benefits for their “associates,” employing illegal immigrants to clean their stores, and just generally dominating the American retail landscape. Yes, we’ve all heard that before. But that didn’t prevent Robert Greenwald, shameless creator of such scathing filmic firebombs as Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism and Uncovered: The War on Iraq, from dropping another cinematic grenade, in the shape of an expletive offensive, on a pinnacle of corporate America. For all the good intentions, however, his latest documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, suffers from a mildly virulent strain of performance anxiety.
At the outset, Greenwald’s heart is in the right place. The noble idea he defends builds to something more than just a superfluous denunciation—somehow, it feels as though he is fighting a perfectly valid battle. The tens of interviews he accrued—which span topics as wide as racial discrimination, sexual assault, crime rates and healthcare costs, with former Wal-Mart employees, customers, community members—feel honest, if at times disjointed. By the time the focus falls on a Chinese sweatshop worker’s confession of the ungodly working conditions at its overseas supplier’s factories, you know there is more to the story than meets the eye. If nothing else, such an intermission serves as a reminder that Wal-Mart has lulled shoppers into ignoring the difference between price and cost. Its unrelenting focus on price underscores something many seem to have overlooked: ever-cheaper prices have consequences.
But isn’t Wal-Mart’s business model, in effect, essentially transparent? Wal-Mart was made successful because people enjoy shopping there, due to both the prices and the convenience. The public could just as well bankrupt the company in a matter of days or weeks simply by failing to show up to make purchases. In the age of "Keep Louisville Weird,” the image of corporate players as the silent perpetrators of labour exploitation and income disparity is as common as dirt. This, in turn, reduces public assaults on biggies such as Wal-Mart to something as headline-grabbing as Britney Spears’ new baby. My biggest gripe with the movie is that Greenwald seems to detach any form of social analysis from his work. The people at the heart of his agenda are somehow missing from the equation.
Is it possible that Wal-Mart is, in effect, free-riding off the taxpayers? Does it discriminate against blacks and women? Is it slowly free-falling into a bottomless chasm as an increasing number of small communities vocally oppose new “supercenters”? Is Corporate America a lie? Greenwald seems to think so, yet never gets to the bottom of it. Unlike a Spurlock or a Moore, he seems all too content to engage in his own stream of consciousness, bombarding the screen with slogans, facts and messages that, while effective at first, soon serve little more than screen-filling purposes. There is little, if any, journalistic value in these 90 minutes; it all essentially registers as a disjointed compendium of mildly interesting interviews stitched together to fill a feature-length production. In Greenwald’s defense, though, this film is important, engaging, even provocative. Let’s see where it leads.
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price is currently playing in theatres in the U.K., and is available on DVD in the U.S.