Capital in the 21st Century


The geometrics of poverty.

(2019) Documentary (Kino-LorberThomas Piketty, Kate Williams, Suresh Naidu, Bryce Edwards, Rana Foroohar, Joseph Stiglitz, Ian Bremmer, Francis Fukuyama, Lucas Chancel, Faiza Shaheen, Paul Mason, Simon Johnson, Paul Piff, Gabriel Zucman, Gillian Tett. Directed by Justin Pemberton

 

Okay. So it’s not exactly news that there is a massive disparity between haves and have-nots in this country, and the middle class – once the backbone of American prosperity – has been shrinking at an alarming rate until, now, it barely exists. In this country, to quote Midnight Oil, the rich get richer, the poor get the picture.

And in case they haven’t, economist Thomas Piketty presents it very clearly for them hear. Base on his bestselling book which may be the biggest selling economics book since Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, the book and the movie it is based on explains why the rich get richer and how the deck is stacked against the rest of us. It is a moment in time where that has been displayed clearly by the coronavirus; it infects everybody regardless of the size of their bankbook, but the poor, who haven’t been able to afford decent health care, have been hit disparately harder than the wealthy.

Piketty warns that the conditions that gave rise to Marxism are returning again, with a massive concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, social mobility becoming nearly impossible and nationalism and fascism both on the rise. The baby boomers may be the last generation to reasonably expect to have a better life than their parents; it is nearly impossible to do now – unless you are part of the one percent.

Piketty leads a parade of economists, historians and sociologists in interviews that show how the privileged classes manipulated the hearts and minds of the poor, demonizing any sort of program that would actually help them – including breeding a mistrust of education – and creating a stigma over any social program, linking it with the dreaded socialism *shudder* which is, of course, anti-American, right? Welllllllll…

New Zealand-based director Pemberton laces the film with plenty of pop culture references, from a hit song by Lorde to clips from The Grapes of Wrath and Elysium. In one of the more fascinating sequences, UC Irvine professor Paul Piff details an experiment in which two students were randomly selected to play Monopoly. A roll of the dice gave one player the role of the rich player, and the other the poor player. The rich player was given hella advantages, including more cash to begin with, the ability to roll two dice at a time (the poor player could only roll one) and more income every time they passed Go ($200 to the poor player’s $100). An interesting thing happened; the rich players grew arrogant and cocky, attributing success to superior game play rather than the nearly insurmountable advantages they were given. Gordon Gekko opined that greed is good and maybe it is (although evidence says no), but it is certainly ingrained in nearly all of us.

While there are some solutions offered – many of which were put forth by Elizabeth Warren during her Presidential campaign last year – they are unlikely to be enacted by politicians who are largely in the pocket of the super-rich. I would have liked to have seen the same kind of analysis given to the solutions as there was to the problems, which aren’t exactly breaking news. For those who believe that the rich are superior to those who don’t have money, there is the specter of the French Revolution – which is what happens when people have nothing to lose. We are rapidly getting to that point not only here in America but all over the world. Those who refuse to learn from history, after all, are doomed to repeat it, often to their great regret.

The movie is currently available through Kino-Lorber’s virtual cinema program which benefits local art houses. Although the Enzian currently isn’t one of them, Floridians wishing to check out the movie and benefit local art houses have four to choose from; the Tampa Theater in Tampa, the Sun-Ray Cinema in Jacksonville, the Coral Gables Art House in Miami and the Tropic Cinema in Key West. Click on the picture for more information.

REASONS TO SEE: A fairly sober explanation of how we got to where we are.
REASONS TO AVOID: There isn’t a lot of analysis of where we go from here.
FAMILY VALUES: The content is definitely not for the young.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on the bestselling non-fiction book by Piketty, which has sold more than three million copies worldwide to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Freakanomics
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
My Darling Vivian

The Emperor’s New Clothes


Get me to the financial meltdown on time.

Get me to the financial meltdown on time.

(2015) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Russell Brand. Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Wealth inequality is a major social issue in 2016 and looks to be for a long while. The same people responsible for the financial collapse of 2008 that very nearly wrecked the global economy have benefitted from trillions of dollars in financial bailouts generated by the taxpayers of the United States and United Kingdom.

We hear about these issues from progressive bloggers, left-wing news outlets and progressive politicians. Few have made these issues more relatable however than comedian Russell Brand. While his movie appearances and brief marriage to singer Katie Perry have made him fairly well known on American shores, it is in Great Britain where he is much more of a well-known figure, thanks to his comedy specials and television programs.

He is something of a gadfly, a populist comic who has become a social activist. He has always leaned to the left in his comedy but of late he has emphasized his activism a lot more, as shown in this documentary collaboration with filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (The Trip) as he tilts at the windmills that are British bankers.

While Brand focuses on the problems in his native United Kingdom, the issues there are somewhat depressingly similar to what is happening in the United States. Using memes and an occasional in-your-face rhetoric in which statistics are shouted in a strident voice, Brand nevertheless builds up a convincing argument that Fundamentalist Capitalism as advocated by economist Milton Friedman and put into practice by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and conservatives that have followed in their footsteps, is responsible for the runaway economic woes that have come from the rich not only getting richer and the poor not only getting poorer, but the disparity between the two growing wider than ever.

Statistics come at you like body blows from Rocky Balboa; OXFAM reports that the world’s wealthiest 80 people has the combined wealth of the bottom half of the world population, or that had the minimum wage gone up at the same rate as CEO salaries, then workers would be making a minimum salary of nearly six figures annually.

He utilizes a confrontational technique popularized by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore in seeking out banking executives for interviews (who only give them when ambushed by Brand and his camera crew) to ask uncomfortable questions about the bailout, bonuses given by banking firms since then and their own excessively bloated compensation packages. Often he ends up spending more time with security guards with whom he discusses what he’s planning on asking their bosses, which is ironic since the guards are part of the 99% he’s preaching to.

And it is preaching. Even Brand himself admits that he’s a wealthy man and occasionally jokes about raising taxes on the wealthy to exclude himself, but he advocates 90% taxation on the wealthy, a plan that he seems to dash when he also brings up the tax havens in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere where trillions of dollars are being held benefiting essentially only the very rich.

Brand is an engaging and likable personality and when he is showing compassion to single working mums, he seems to be at his best although there are instances (as when he’s talking with a woman afflicted with cerebral palsy whose benefits were drastically cut) where you feel that he is playing to the camera a bit overly much.

I can’t say this is an indispensable documentary – there is a bit of pandering to the hipster left and some of the stunts are a bit disingenuous but the heart is in the right place. Your reaction to the movie will entirely depend on your political point of view; conservative audiences will no doubt dislike the film while more progressive viewers may well embrace it. Film buffs could admire the graphic presentation and disparage Winterbottom’s static camera work.

Certainly this is one of the more important issues (behind climate change) of our time. Brand makes a good case that this is money that these families didn’t actually earn, and whom for the most part inherited and used their power and influence to buy political votes in order to make the tax structures more accommodating to them and make it easier for them to not only keep their wealth but increase it – at the expense of everyone else.

REASONS TO GO: A succinct explanation of wealth inequality. Brand is an engaging personality.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes you feel shouted at. These sorts of confrontation hijinks have been done before.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of two documentaries about Russell Brand’s crusade against wealth inequality released last year (the other being Russell Brand: The Second Coming by Ondi Timoner).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Roger and Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Danish Girl