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'Wal-Mart' seen through the eyes of the disaffected

Former employees who once believed in the retail giant are the soul of an engrossing and saddening documentary.

November 04, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" is an engrossing, muckraking documentary about the retail giant that's been called "the world's largest, richest and probably meanest corporation." But if you're expecting an angry diatribe, you're going to be disappointed.

Instead, the predominant feeling coming off the screen in the latest film from director Robert Greenwald ("Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," "Uncovered: The War on Iraq") is a kind of baffled disenchantment and sadness.

That's because Greenwald has shrewdly chosen not to go with classic talking head types like economists, academics and journalists. Instead he talked to current and former Wal-Mart employees, including several with a dozen or more years with the company. The story they tell is not a happy one.

For these were people who had bought completely into the Wal-Mart mythology, the lure of working for a strong organization that offered opportunities for advancement and cared enough about its employees to call them associates. Realizing that the company they worked for was not the Wal-Mart of their dreams was often a shattering experience, a coming to terms with a god that failed.

Typical of these is Jim Bill Lynn, a nine-year company man who was a global services operations manager, charged with making sure that factories in Latin America that supplied Wal-Mart with its legendarily inexpensive clothing were operated under humane conditions.

Someone who "believed in the mission" with a passion and "bled Wal-Mart blue," Lynn was so distraught to discover how dreadful factory conditions actually were that he went back to his hotel room and cried. He expected the company to correct the numerous abuses, and when they did not he was crushed once again.

The people who speak out against Wal-Mart are hardly rabble-rousing anarchists. Greenwald's film takes pains to point out that they are often deeply patriotic conservative Republicans who swear by the capitalist system but feel that Wal-Mart's inordinate size and power give it unfair leverage in the marketplace.

Wal-Mart's influence begins before a store even goes in. Greenwald's film documents, often in large type that flashes headline-style on the screen, the subsidies Wal-Mart wangles out of the communities it plans to build in. Even worse, as happened in Cathedral City, the company occasionally decides to move just outside the city limits when the time comes for the metropolis to collect on promised revenue.

Wal-Mart also has a reputation of driving other local stores out of business, making an affected town look, one resident explains, "like a neutron bomb hit it." It becomes, a displaced store owner says, a question of cheaper underwear versus quality of life. "Once they steal that from you," the man says in sorrow, not anger, "you can't get it back at any price."

Despite the company's boast of treating employees well, the movie says the opposite is true. Former managers and employees talk about continual pressure to work overtime without getting paid for the work. The film also accuses Wal-Mart of encouraging people to get healthcare from state and local welfare systems, making it a situation where "everyday low prices are based on taxpayer subsidies."

Perhaps the ultimate example of what the documentary presents as the company's penchant for looking at everything from the narrowest possible cost-benefit point of view is what goes on in the stores' parking lots. Despite numerous violent incidents in these huge areas, the company does not spend any money on security outside the building, concentrating its forces on the inside to curtail shoplifting.

"Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" is not a classic balanced documentary. Polemical in nature, it isn't interested in talking to happy consumers about their low prices, and, because the company refused to cooperate, it doesn't have an interview with Lee Scott, its chief executive, though he does appear frequently in the film courtesy of existing news clips and internal company footage.

Wal-Mart, not surprisingly, is not happy at being portrayed as a culture of greed-heads. It has posted 10 pages of anti-Greenwald material on one of its websites, gleefully quoting from every bad review the man has gotten since 1980 and beating the drum for a competing film called "Why Wal-Mart Works: And Why That Drives Some People C-R-A-Z-Y."

Although the company's low prices are beyond dispute, the question of whether we as a society are selling our soul for cheap underwear is a more difficult one to answer.


'Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Adult subject matter

Released by Brave New Films. Director Robert Greenwald. Producers Robert Greenwald, Jim Gilliam, Devin Smith. Cinematographer Kristy Tully. Editors Chris Gordon, Douglas Cheek, Robert Florio, Jonathan Brock. Music John Frizzell. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

In limited release.

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