|By Valerie Kuklenski
||November 4, 2005
Director: Robert Greenwald.
Running time: 1 hr. 38 min.
Playing: Laemmle Fairfax today, wider release on Nov. 13 with grass-roots screenings.
In a nutshell: Robert Greenwald, who previously challenged the 2000 presidential election in "Unprecedented" and took on Fox News in "Outfoxed," squares off with the nation's retailing giant by detailing how it stays cheap.
Documentary shows why Wal-Mart is no bargain
Ask anyone wheeling a loaded cart from a Wal-Mart why she shops there and it's a good bet she'll say it's hard to beat the prices, whether it's on a popular toy, pantyhose, bundles of paper towels or a case of Dr Pepper.
Robert Greenwald's "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" shows just how Sam Walton's retail empire achieves those prices, even while the company reaps billions in profits and his heirs enjoy the distinction of being among the richest Americans.
The documentary compiles a wide array of corporate offenses, including managers instructed to doctor payroll records to keep earned overtime off the books and its strong-arm anti-union tactics. There are the sexual discrimination cases filed by women who complain of a corporate culture of denying them promotions or paying them less than men. And there is the drain on states and counties by full-time Wal-Mart associates who are forced to use Medicaid, food stamps and other public-assistance programs.
The toll Wal-Mart has taken on family-owned businesses and once-bustling downtowns is an old tale, but Greenwald tells it poignantly through accounts of the Hunter family's H&H Hardware in Middlefield, Ohio, and Esry's IGA in Hamilton, Mo., two businesses devastated by the arrival of Wal-Mart.
He also takes us inside a factory in China where workers producing Wal-Mart goods live in cramped dormitories and earn less than $3 a day.
The movie has local Southern California angles as well. Cathedral City gave government subsidies to the corporation in the form of infrastructure improvements - at great expense to its local public-safety budget - and then saw Wal-Mart shutter that store and set up a new location just outside its city limits where Cathedral City does not get sales tax revenue. The movie's hopeful ending includes the fight in Inglewood last year against a Wal-Mart-sponsored ballot measure that would have overridden a City Council decision to keep a megastore from being built
Wal-Mart refused to make CEO Lee Scott available for the film, so Greenwald used footage of him giving glowing reports to shareholders at the annual meeting as well as his taped interviews with ABC and CBS. Also representing Wal-Mart is a host of disgruntled current and past employees, a number of them managers with 15 years or more with the company.
The movie looks cheaply produced - dare we say on a Wal-Mart budget? - but Greenwald was hindered by the pullout of two high-profile backers who feared Wal-Mart would retaliate against them by refusing to distribute their own DVDs. However, without adding much to the length or the cost, the film could have benefited from more narration for continuity.
For all his thoroughness, Greenwald did not mention perhaps Wal-Mart's most serious economic impact: Its low employee wages and the job losses or pay cuts it has caused in the U.S. retail and manufacturing sectors are creating a growing number of Americans who cannot afford to shop anywhere but Wal-Mart.
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