Film Attacking Greed Has Its Premiere on Billionaire's Doorstep
There was no red carpet for the premiere of The War on Greed, starring Henry Kravis and His Many Homes; and the ultra-rich residents in attendance at the screening on Manhattan's exclusive Upper East Side may not have been an entirely willing audience. But if the star of your film is unwilling to accept an invitation to the premiere, what is a firebrand documentary-maker meant to do but take the premiere to his front door.
Robert Greenwald, scourge of the retail giant Wal-Mart and Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, has turned his polemical lens on Mr Kravis, the private equity billionaire, as a campaign against the vast riches at the top of the industry gathers momentum.
Backers of the film donned hi-tech video sandwich boards to premiere the short film on the pavement of Park Avenue, outside some of the city's most expensive real estate. Beneath the 26-room penthouse, complete with art gallery, library and 68ft-long reception room, which is Mr Kravis's New York home, they rang bells, sang Christmas carols, and asked bemused residents to support a war on greed.
"These guys are not millionaires, but billionaires," Greenwald said, "and I got irritated when I started reading that these guys are fighting to protect their tax dodges and tax loopholes. It's obscene, because they are buying, stripping and selling companies. In an economic war, the casualties are hidden, but workers are affected in terrible ways."
Mr Kravis's firm, KKR, pioneered the leveraged buy-out, borrowing billions of dollars to buy up public companies, restructuring the companies to pay back the debt and then selling them on for a big profit, and it is still the biggest player in the industry. Earlier this year it snapped up Boots in the UK. Mr Kravis personally is worth $5.5bn (£2.7bn).
Greenwald came to prominence on the wave of campaigning documentaries that followed the breakthrough successes of Michael Moore. His film The High Cost of Low Prices exposed the damage to communities caused by Wal-Mart and became a must-watch on the left.
Mr Kravis is a "poster boy for greed", Greenwald said, and the new film juxtaposes information about five homes owned by the billionaire with stories of individual workers. Margaret Konjevod, a Californian nurse, looks aghast when told that Mr Kravis made $51,369 an hour last year. "Oh my - that's what I make in a year - if I'm lucky." Sara Gepp, a sound engineer, said: "It's very unreasonable that someone should live in a 28-room mansion while paying less tax than one's maid, percentage-wise."
Mr Kravis's homes include a $10m beachfront villa in the Dominican Republic, a five-acre property in Palm Beach, Florida, and a mansion where he installed three lakes and a waterfall and redesigned a hill so as to make the slope a little more gentle.
It is the first in a series of YouTube-style shorts that Greenwald plans to release on the internet over the coming months, and which he hopes will stir up a political storm.
The private equity industry appears to have headed off calls for an increase in the tax paid by partners. Charles Grassley, the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, told The Washington Post yesterday there was no time to pursue a new bill, and he cited a "gigantic effort on the part of Wall Street" for the logjam, adding that "they've hired every Tom, Dick and Harry".
The private equity industry is wincing under a public spotlight after increasingly vocal campaigns organised by unions, which accuse it of cutting the jobs, wages and benefits of workers in order to maximise their profits. The industry says it improves the competitiveness of the companies it owns, helping the long-term prospects of the economy. As for Greenwald's "poster boy for greed", Mr Kravis's spokespeople offered nothing but a terse "no comment".
© 2007 The Independent