Film

'Capital in the 21st Century': Pie for the Rich, Crumbs for the People

Justin Pemberton's film version of Thomas Piketty's landmark book on the dangers of today's yawning income inequality, Capital in the 21st Century, is more TED Talk than documentary, but it's a handy summary nonetheless.

Capital in the 21st Century
Justin Pemberton

Kino Lorber

May 2020

Other

The popularity of Thomas Piketty's economics tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century seems less shocking now than it did in 2014. Then, the progressive left in the US was seen as still mired in its Occupy Wall Street phase, the rage against the parasitic entrenchment of monied interests in the body politic seemingly confined to a cluster of dreadlocked crusties and Marxian academics.

But when Pikkety's book was snapped up by a wider reading public, and his arguments about the unsustainable concentration of capital in a shrinking number of hands resonated, it became clear that income inequality was a broad concern. Two years later, when a little-known democratic socialist senator stormed the Democratic primary and convinced the party leadership that seemingly radical positions ($15 minimum wage, retirement of college debt, universal health care) had deep public support, Piketty was likely responsible for softening the ground.

All of which is to say that 2020 feels like an odd time for the release of a documentary based on the book. It feels either too late (most of the potential audience is already well familiar with the topic) or too early (the book's true impact may be clearer ten or twenty years from now).

Justin Pemberton's Capital in the Twenty-First Century takes the fundamental arguments of Piketty's book and presents them in an engaging, visually brisk manner that has the gleaming appeal but somewhat narrow one-sidedness of a TED Talk. The author himself lays out his thesis: Modern capitalism has created a concentration of capital that is ultimately unsustainable. He references the "misery" of communist rule to show that despite his being well-versed in Marxist analysis, he is no doctrinaire Red demanding state control of industry. Rather, he is more interested in laying out a modern history of capital to show how pre-modern economic models, replete with tiny cliques of aristocrats distant from the teeming masses, are reestablishing themselves in our time.

(Kino Lorber)

Pemberton deploys a solid phalanx of experts who, despite their skepticism of capitalism, would likely be well-received on the Aspen/Davos post-lecture cocktail circuit. Academics like Joseph Stiglitz and Francis Fukuyama are interleaved with more sound bite-ready analysts like Rana Foroohar and Ian Bremmer. They walk viewers through Piketty's crash course, starting from the Industrial Age's decoupling of capital from land to the Wild West speculation of 1920s Wall Street, the post-World War II financial regulations that spread capital more equitably before being loosened in the Reagan/Thatcher era, and today's hyperspeed capitalism and consumerism. (The montage of inequality set to Lorde's "Royals" is a little too on-the-nose but effective nonetheless.)

The basic analysis laid out by Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that the modern state of inequality is carving ever-larger slices of the economic pie for what Fukuyama terms a global "layer of oligarchs". This is not an original concept, of course. Where Piketty's argument has greater resonance is how he ties it back to the past. He draws on literary references from Balzac to Austen (unfortunately yet understandably far more truncated here than in the book) to show how today's "reproduction of social hierarchies" can lead to destructive class tensions.

He is more optimistic than many of the interviewees, even though his plans to produce greater equity would be fought tooth-and-nail by the anti-redistributionists. His surprisingly friendly and non-didactic analysis is fundamentally simple at its root (it's not too complicated: tax wealth so that they can't accrue anti-democratic amounts of power and wealth) , and as a result, potentially radical.

What all this boils down to is that Pemberton's movie is essentially a Piketty book report. That is not necessarily a criticism. At a time when even once-literary people admit that Twitter has neutron-bombed their attention span, a 700+ page nonfiction book may not appeal. Because of that, despite the movie's overly narrow focus, it's hard to find fault with an easily digestible cinematic companion to such a crucial and potentially prophetic book.

From Your Site Articles
Related Articles Around the Web


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

Books

Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.

Music

Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.

Film

Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.

Television

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.

Film

Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Music

The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.

Music

The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.

Music

Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.

Music

​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Music

John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.