‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ Reminds Us that Greed Isn’t Good

#EatTheRich is the long overdue rebuttal to “Let them eat cake.”

5 mins read

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
(New Zealand, 103 min.)
Dir. Justin Pemberton

This reviewer can’t help but smile whenever #EatTheRich trends on Twitter. The world is in an escalating crisis as the gap widens between the haves and the have nots, and Twitter mob has the knives out to turn the one-percenters into an all-you-can-eat buffet. This observation isn’t new or novel, but it’s impossible to avoid. Scan the headlines, read the Tweets, and watch the news. Frustration is everywhere. If feels the tension building towards a French Revolution style riot against banks and crooked politicians, so be it. #EatTheRich is the long overdue rebuttal to “Let them eat cake.”

Justin Pemberton’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century argues that a movement akin to the French Revolution is inevitable. The tensions and inequalities today are part of an historical cycle and products of entrenched socio-political forces. The doc adapts Thomas Piketty’s bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century and features an energetic array of talking heads gabbing about the history of inequality from the days of feudal landowners to present. Capital is handsomely produced, but also overwhelming with the terrain it covers in a brisk, madcap run throughout history.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century reaches to the final years of the 1700s to contextualise contemporary inequality. It doesn’t really need to go this far back as Pemberton evokes the familiar unrest of the French working class that culminated in sending Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to the guillotine. The film emphasizes the fairly obvious point that capitalism breeds inequality. The wealthy Wall Street bankers are the French aristocrats of today. However, the film inevitably needs to cover so much terrain in the journey from 1793 to 2019 that much gets lost along the way.

Pemberton pads the academic commentary with a smorgasbord of film clips. An extensive range of public domain silent cinema evokes images of protesting masses and violent skirmishes. Glamour shots from Triumph of the Will convey the rise of Hitler. Film characters ultimately overwhelm the talking heads. Snippets from Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, for example, evoke the revolutionary air in 1700s’ France through song. Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech exemplifies the perversions of Reagan-era economics. Some clips from the dystopian thriller Elysium, alternatively, speculate about inequality in the future. However, Hollywood creates a different reality than that in which the working class struggles. Capital in the Twenty-First Century often submits to a desire for Hollywood escapism. The extensive film clips offer familiar entertainment, convenient references, and connective tissues, but little in terms of substance.

This approach favours scope over depth as the film checks in with signification episodes in history that shifted economies. From the Holocaust to the Baby Boom to the 2008 financial meltdown, it checks all the boxes while noting an endless cycle of wealth made upon the misery and poverty of others. By the time it gets to the Occupy Wall Street movement and contemporary troubles like offshore banking and cyber-capitalism, the account merely extends the list charges proving capitalism’s failings.

When the film does get into the meat of the power dynamics that breed inequality, though, it’s fascinating. For example, one sequence discusses a psychological experiment in which researchers prescribed circumstances in which two people played Monopoly. The “rich” player would start with more money and both dice, while the “poor” player would have less startup money and move across the board at a slower pace having only one die. The tests consistently found that the “rich” player would never share his or her wealth to better the player and would instead become more boisterous, loud, and status conscious. One sees a similar Monopoly game playing out in American politics today.

More solutions, more voices outside the academy, and more dissections of the struggles people face in the present tense, however, might yield a more satisfying call to arms. The need for change is especially obvious watching the film in the context of COVID-19. By the end of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, however, the doc plays more like a backstory for present reality than a necessary rallying cry for change.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is now streaming through Kino Marquee in support of local cinemas.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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