A film review by Craig J. Koban


2007, no MPAA rating, 95 mins.

A Documentary directed by Robert Greenwald

Like every red-blooded and hungry consumer out there looking for the best bang for their buck, I often go out of my way the get the most inexpensive deal possible.  In short – I  go for certain goods and services where it is the cheapest. 

I like socks…black ones in particular. 

I especially like them in bagged form, 10-12 pair per bag, at the lowest price possible.  Do I feel the need to spend an enormous amount for something that nine out of ten people will probably not see on my body?  No at all.  My friend (and new father) feels the same way.  He told me of a recent trip to the local drug store and how, to his astonishment, they charged what seemed like and arm and a leg for diapers.  Not ever having children of my own – but respecting the value of a hard dollar earned – I understood and empathized with him.  So, he did what I would do under the same circumstances – he went to a store that sold them at the lowest cost.

Where did I find my beloved black socks and my friend find his indispensable cheap diapers?  Wal-Mart of course.  You know, that evil, greedy, malevolent, corporate retail juggernaut that believes in fascist-like union busting, paying their workers what appears to be poverty wages, and adheres to a great deal of environmental negligence.  Oh, this is the company that victimizes small town community businesses and, as a result of them moving to said towns, forces 40-50 year old businesses to close down.  Oh, this is the same company that uses slave-level-earning Chinese workers to make some of their products.  Oh, this is the same company that encourages its associates to use Medicaid and food stamps because of their low wages.  Oh, this is the same company that seems to gender and race discriminate in terms of advancing associates to better positions.  And finally, this is the same company that routinely does not pay out overtime to those that deserve it.

Oh…this is the same company that has socks and diapers at dirt low prices.  Will I continue to go?  Yes.  Why?  Because it’s my choice and because I want to get the most out of the little dollars that I have.

This is the ultimate, unsavory hypocrisy of Robert Greenwood’s latest documentary, WAL-MART: THE HIGH COST OF LOW PRICE.  This film is a propaganda piece through and through.  It takes great pains…nay…it goes out of its way to point out what a vile and contemptible retail business Wal-Mart is and why we should all, at the very least, never buy a single thing from a billion dollar operation that screws more than one person over on any given day of the week.  For all of Greenwood’s political, social, and economic attacks on the nation biggest employer, there is an unsettling level of hollowness to his cinematic editorial.  Yes, there is no doubt that Wal-Mart is a company, for example, that has ended – if not annihilated – small town economies by their new stores moving in.  The big question that the documentary seems to always avoid is why the people of these towns abandoned the businesses that they were faithful to for years and turned their eyes to mother of the big box stores? 

Greenwood’s film is about staunch attacks with very little didactic commentary.  Sure, we get all of those standard nuggets of truth about this retail monster, but the film really does not point out anything that I – most likely – did not already know.  Consider the not-so-subtle manipulative value of Greenwood’s little vignettes of idyllic small town businesses, where their respective owners reflect of the high times of their livelihoods pre-War-Mart invasion.  Invasion is not altogether an inappropriate analogy – one store manager refers to the emergence of one new Wal-Mart as akin to a nuclear bomb decimating the city’s downtown area.  In some ways, these moments are effective – initially at least – to move most audience members.  Seeing countless storefronts in many small rural American towns be emptied in the wake of Wal-Mart reminded me of similar moments of capitalist and economic devastation committed elsewhere.  For example, just look at the town of Flint, Michigan after GM laid off countless people to make more money in the late 80’s as shown in ROGER AND ME.  Seeing empty buildings that once housed thriving businesses is sad, truth be told.

But…wait a minute.  Does Greenwood go further and dig deeper?  Does he go out of his way to interview any one from any of the city councils that give Wal-Mart millions of dollars of year in subsidies for zoning and, effectively, allowing them to set up shop?  Moreover, does Greenwood go out of his way to interview any of the past shoppers of the once multigenerational Pennsylvania hardware store and ask them – for the love of the retail Gods – why they have abandoned a once great store and have sold their souls to the “low cost devils” and now shop at Wal-Mart?  And finally, does Greenwood go out of his way to interview any of the other customers of the new Wal-Mart and ask them – plain and simply – why they shop and support this gargantuan monopoly and, in effect, leave their other town’s business dead in the water?

The answer to all of the above is a resounding “no.”  There, in turn, lies the ultimate failure and two-facedness of Greenwood’s approach here.  It is a sad occurrence when Wal-Mart opens in small towns and destroys local businesses, but what about the locals?  Why did they desert businesses that they most likely supported for decades?  Even more frustrating - and tragic - is how Wal-Mart takes in millions of dollars in subsidies from these cities to move in.  There is an effective piece of cinematic investigative journalism to be had with probing the actual reasons why local city councils give – say - $10 million dollars to a retail chain to build a mega-store, but can’t afford to give local schools money to keep themselves above water.  Yes, Greenwood addresses these matters, but he simply ignores investigating them.

There are other maddening aspects to this relentless, unadulterated attack on Wal-Mart.  Greenwood utilizes what seems like the same former associates and managers of Wal-Mart over and over and over again to hammer home his points.  Why did these people leave their jobs?  Were they disgruntled?  Did they have spats with other employees?  Did they hate their co-workers?  Were they caught committing some offences that were against Wal-Mart’s code of business conduct?  Simply put – did these people quit out of principle or because they were let go?  The ambiguity of these people looms darkly over the film and, ultimately, undermines the veracity of anything they have to provide.

Yes, some of Greenwood’s take-no-prisoner’s approach to his tirade of assaults on the company’s character does hold some water, such as:

q       The fact that Wal-Mart’s founders and owners take around 1% of their billions that they are worth and put it towards charity donations.  Bill Gates, by comparison, commits 58%.

q       The fact that Wal-Mart has publicly used illegal immigrant workers as overnight cleaners to save a buck.

q       The fact that Wal-Mart spends more money on exterior Union busting cameras outside of their stores, but have “no money” to afford exterior night patrol security to stop people from getting attacked, mugged, raped, or killed.

q     The Fact that Wal-Mart associates make so little that they are forced to go to other health and medical agencies because the premiums that the company offers are too high to pay.

q       The fact that Wal-Mart does utilize inexpensive Chinese labor to make some of their inferior products and, in turn, make huge profits.

q       The fact that Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, in many promotional bits that are shown in the film, is obnoxiously coy and smug about the importance of cost cutting at Wal-Mart to remain profitable.  His most heinous and exasperating claim – that he shard a room on a business trip with another and saved the company a few hundred dollars.  His annual salary is in the tens of millions.

Again, there is no denying the advocacy that Greenwood can generate from these facts.  However, consider:

q       Did the small town shops that that sold tools, for example, ever carry and sell products that were made with cheap, Chinese labor?  I would assume "yes."

q       Do other retail businesses pay their associates a below poverty level wage with lackluster health plans?  I would assume “yes”.

q       Do other retailers shy away from unions and engage in union busting – albeit in a much smaller manner than Wal-Mart?  I would assume "yes."

q       Do other retailers not have external security at their parking lots during later times of the evening?  Being a shopper, I can conclude a resounding "yes."

q       How many Wal-Mart associates were already on Medicaid before they got jobs at Wal-Mart?  I would assume that some must have been.

q       Can Wal-Wart be blamed for accepting incredible subsidies from cities?  Hardly.  Surely, these city councils must take some of the burden of blame for the later devastation of their town’s businesses?  Furthermore, even if the retail store decided to move in regardless of subsidies, could the city not have given subsidies to the smaller businesses that were being threatened?

Much like a similar documentary from last year – SUPER SIZE ME – I grew increasingly dizzy just thinking about the areas that were not explored in Greenwood’s efforts here.  There are no doubt that most lay people will take every word of this film at face value.  For the rest of us that yearn for a more contextual analysis from Greenwood, we will feel completely left out of the loop.  His outlook is also limited to an ostensibly grassroots prerogative.  Does he ever talk to an economist, union representative, or…for that matter…even make an attempt to talk to a Wal- Mart store manager or – heaven forbid –CEO Lee Scott himself?  Nope.  If this film were the brainchild of Michael Moore, he would have barged his way to the corporate head offices and demanded some damn answers.

Maybe that’s the largest problem with this documentary – the lack of a distinguished voice leading us through the proceedings.  Maybe even more misgiving is the notion that WAL-MART: THE HIGH COST OF LOW PRICE did not tell me something I really did not know already, or could not find out by logging on to the net and doing a half hour of research.  Yet another tale of corporate malfeasance and dishonesty?  I dunno…I guess that I could have taken one in that looked deeper at some of it’s own inherent paradoxes. 

All through the film I was reminded of an old woman discussing obesity and the food at MacDonald’s in SUPER SIZE ME.  To paraphrase, she stated that people see the healthy choices on the fast food company’s menu, but they choose to eat the Big Mac and large fries.  Similarly, I guess I go to Wal-Mart for because they are the cheapest for many things and I chose to go.  I can chose to boycott the company but, alas, I don’t because I don’t want to pay higher costs elsewhere.  That is the inherent power  (and maybe bitter irony) of being a consumer in our capitalist and profit-motivated society.  Wal-Mart is, no doubt, a shady business with practices that would make the former CEO’s of Enron blush, but they are not forcing people at gunpoint to shop there.  That’s the biggest omission this film makes – it’s fine to focus on those that suffered the most under this retail  store’s efforts, but what do the people that dumped their once cherished stores for Wal-Mart have to say?  Are they not as guilty?  Maybe not.  After all, they are just looking for the cheapest wrench…or t-shirt…or diapers…or socks, for that matter.

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