Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (PG)

Damning critique of consumerism? Aisle four, sir
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The Independent Culture

If last month's Enron documentary didn't have you dreaming of armed revolution, wait until you see this single-minded denunciation of Wal-Mart, a mega-corporation that squeezes money from the US's poorest consumers by throttling them with a chain of out-of-town discount superstores. It isn't subtle. Somewhere between a barrister's summing-up and a fire-and-brimstone sermon, The High Cost of Low Price doesn't bother itself with Wal-Mart's history, and there's not a wisecracking baseball-capped presenter in sight.

Its tactic is to replay an AGM booster speech that was given by Wal-Mart's boss, and to follow each of his boasts - about the environment, about local communities, about employees' opportunities - with the testimonies of people who know better. There are the owners of the family-run hardware stores which Wal-Mart put out of business; there's the river warden who spotted sacks of pollutants stacked in a Wal-Mart car park; there are the illegal immigrants who are locked in stores overnight while they mop the floors; and there are the full-time employees - or "associates", to use the euphemism - who can't afford to eat lunch, but who face the sack if they even think the word "union". The only people who aren't interviewed are the firm's founders, the Waltons, whose combined fortune is bigger than Bill Gates'.

The film was made by Robert Greenwald, whose last two documentaries meted out the same treatment to Fox News and the Bush administration, but which looked much more polished while doing it. Greenwald's new film has all the artistic and rhetorical finesse of Wal-Mart's own commercials, with folksy acoustic guitars to emphasise the plight of lowly middle Americans, and with horrifying statistics which land on the screen with a resounding boom. But if the film can be trite as a documentary, as a propaganda instrument it makes Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock look like mealy-mouthed appeasers. And if you think Wal-Mart's not our problem, one sequence set in south London has the bad news. Guess which company owns Asda.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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