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‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ Review: A Smart Documentary Analysis of Why We’re All Screwed

This documentary adaptation of Thomas Picketty's financial bestseller offers a lucid explanation for why you're poorer than your parents.

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century”

As the Occupy Wall Street movement began to crest and millennials the world over started to realize they’d be the first generation since World War II to make less money than their parents, French economist Thomas Piketty had the good fortune to release a hyper-readable book that explained why (or at least offered a lucid argument for liberals to debate and conservatives to deny). “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” moved 1.5 million copies in its first two years of release, making it the highest-selling title that Harvard University Press has ever published, and turning its author into the closest thing his field has to a rock star.

Now, in the midst of an election year pandemic that is ruthlessly exposing the rift between capital and labor — and shining a garish spotlight on the gross inequality that results from such a disconnect — Kiwi filmmaker Justin Pemberton has translated Piketty’s text into a spry, erudite, and consistently watchable documentary that articulates how we got here, and why things are only going to get worse if we don’t right the balance between economic growth and consolidated wealth.

Always legible, sometimes reductive, but never condescending, Pemberton’s film offsets a lack of complexity with an abundance of clarity. And one thing that’s especially clear is the fact that “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” is geared towards a disenchanted general audience who’ve been denied a real ownership stake of whatever they produce. That makes this film the perfect rental for anyone looking to burn a few bucks from a stimulus check that isn’t even large enough to sustain them; for anyone who received $1,200 in federal hush money from a plutocratic government that wants to reopen the economy but keep its workers stuck in place.

An engaging thinker who often appears on camera to talk us through his key ideas, Piketty may reject “trickle down economics” and the myriad other conservative policies that helped stifle the promise of social mobility, but Pemberton’s film doesn’t amount to the kind of leftist propaganda that some might hope for (and others might fear). Piketty regards capitalism as both the cause for and the solution to many of modern history’s most intractable problems; he appears to see it as the greatest threat to the 21st century, and also its only feasible salvation.

If that sounds like a convenient bit of bothsidesism, the documentary anchors its argument in the push and pull of post-industrial history. Like its source material, Pemberton’s film takes a wide view of the last three centuries in order to argue that the system itself has never been as flawed as the people who try to rig it in their favor. Beginning with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and then spiraling back to the French Revolution, Piketty (and a supporting cast of smart complementary voices that’s highlighted by political scientist Ian Bremmer and historian Kate Williams) contend that the rate of return on capital has always outpaced economic growth, through good times and bad. Young leftists tend to assume that terrible inequality is a feature of capitalism and not a bug, but these folks suggest the opposite is true.

Pemberton tries a number of tricks to lower his audience’s defenses. Propelled by a glossy pop soundtrack, a clean flurry of eye-popping graphics, and an armada of archival footage that shouts “this couldn’t have been a podcast!” until the movie goes hoarse, this film also strives to recapture the same accessibility of its source material by weaving in references to popular culture.

Beyond the use of Lorde’s “Royals” to score a montage of extravagant wealth (a needle-drop so on-the-nose that even Robert Zemeckis would roll his eyes), and the suggestion that Jane Austen’s novels have helped to preserve the concept of aristocracy in the public imagination, Pemberton also illustrates Piketty’s points with film clips that run the gamut from “The Grapes of Wrath” to “Elysium.” The documentary flirts with the idea that pop culture is the most invaluable resource we have when trying to assemble a unified history of financial imbalance, but it never manages to tie a solid knot at the end of that thread. If you’re gonna ambush unsuspecting viewers with a scene from Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables,” you better have a damn good reason.

The film is stronger when Pemberton allows its subjects to walk us through the ebb and flow of the world’s financial systems. Williams succinctly explains how the patrimonial capitalism responsible for England’s gentry class reduced the country’s average life expectancy to 17 years of age in the 18th century, while Piketty scoffs at the naivéte of the French Revolution’s idea that equality would spontaneously seep out from beneath the guillotine. From there it’s off to the 19th and 20th centuries: The human capital of slavery, the advent of mass production, the glorification of property, and then the great reset of World War II.

Pemberton knowingly glosses over the vast inequalities that persisted throughout the “Mad Men” era (for these purposes his cast is only interested in the viability of a stable middle class, however limited it might be), but slows down to lament how things started to bend their way back to the stratification of yore. Stagflation, the myth that what’s good for Wall Street is good for Main Street, the markets becoming less of an intermediary for wealth than a repository for it, and so on. The rich get richer and the rest share the scraps — same as it ever was. Twenty-first century technology will all but completely sever the relationship between capital and labor, while the President of the United States foments another Great Depression by insisting that stocks are a reliable measure of economic health.

Donald Trump’s voice is only heard for an instant towards the end of the film, but his malignant narcissism epitomizes Picketty’s criticism of inherited wealth, and supports his argument that the rich believe they deserve their good fortune (the film even uses a psychological experiment to nest that hypothesis in the bedrock of human nature). They want us to think that inequality drives competition, when in fact it only drives inequality. Whenever the masses are on the precipice of realizing us much, well, there’s nothing like a little fear-based nationalism to distract from the possibility of class warfare.

The implication seems to be that history is doomed to repeat itself, and that some cataclysmic event will invariably come along to flatten the curve and fix the system for a while. Watching “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” from the eye of a storm that will ripple across the next 80 years, that feels like the coldest of comforts; a nonviolent revolution hinging on wealth taxes and de-consolidated ownership sounds far more appealing, but Pemberton’s film is frustratingly uninterested in finding a better way forward.

In a sense, it would be unfair to expect a viable solution from someone as scared as Picketty, but it’s hard to square the potential of capitalism with the inevitability of its abuse. If people are too craven for the system to work — and if the wealthy are too powerful to allow the system to change — then maybe the problem is with the system itself.

Grade: B

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” will be available to atream through Film Forum’s Virtual Cinema and available in other virtual cinemas via Kino Marquee from Friday, May 1. 

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