Capital in the Twenty-First Century

In the 1980’s, the Berlin Wall was the physical symbol of the hard line between Capitalism and Communism.  When the Wall came down, Thomas Piketty was 18 and saw how quickly private property became popular in former Communist countries.  But in ensuing years, he noticed disturbing trends towards historical collapses and wrote about them in “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”

Laura's Review: B+

Adapting Thomas Piketty's book along with Matthew Metcalfe and the author, director Justin Pemberton utilizes academic, industry, economic and journalistic experts as talking heads accompanied by visuals from popular culture, particularly extensive movie clips, and historical still photography and newsreels.  At first shuttling amidst three sources, Pemberton eventually spins outward, but the groundwork is laid early and substantially and it isn’t pretty.

Professor of History Kate Williams at the University of Reading refers to the works of Jane Austen to illustrate how inherited wealth works against the common good.  The French Revolution is a perfect example of what happens when the common man joins forces to act against it, but even here we learn how short-lived their efforts were when bankers ended up creating a new elite class.  Economics professor Suresh Naidu uses the industrial revolution to pinpoint the birth of capitalism to when industrialists rolled investments to foster growth. 

When nationalism and xenophobia, something we are experiencing globally now, led to WWI, it was followed by a period of growth for the working classes who demanded their fair share after wartime sacrifices.  But Wall Street euphoria was followed by the Great Depression.  FDR’s New Deal resulted in a great redistribution of wealth which naturally resulted in a vastly improved infrastructure and for the first time hard work could ensure prosperity.  Ironically Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a shopkeeper, was a model of social mobility, but it was she and Ronald Reagan who declared FDR’s ‘welfare state’ as having made their respective countries ‘soft,’ incensed that the economies of Germany and Japan, defeated in WWII, were leapfrogging ahead now.  This led to workers being treated as costs instead of assets whereas the workers of Germany and Japan were given a stake.  And what happens when the continual growth espoused by Reagan hits a ceiling?

Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of Pemberton’s documentary is a psychological study that was done with hundreds of Monopoly players.  A set of players were given a monetary advantage at the beginning and the richer they became, the more aggressive, rude, loud and less compassionate their behavior.   Not a single one acknowledged that they had won the game because of an unfair advantage.  This is eye-opening for those of us who cannot understand how so many who can afford compassion fail to act upon it, instead crushing the little guy while amassing more wealth.

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” builds upon such works as 2013’s “Inequality for All,” based on the teachings of Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ long-standing call to arms about the ever widening economic divide in the United States.  We are told that when the lower classes fail to rise up, more wealth is concentrated at the top.  Complacency will lead to collapse and this documentary is a call to arms.

Robin's Review: B+

The more money one person has, the less there is for others. This has been the economic principle since the days of the 18th and 19th centuries, when the aristocracy controlled the world’s wealth. That changed when the royals declined and the robber barons rose to power and took over the nation’s wealth. But, we now have a new set of controlling oligarchs in charge of “Capital in the Twenty-first Century.”

Longtime documentary filmmaker Justin Pemberton and screenwriter Matthew Metcalfe, with author Thomas Piketty, adapt Piketty’s book of the title and the result is a succinct history of capitalism through the modern age. They take the author’s economic formula and explain, smartly, that if the rate of the growth of capital (r) remain higher than the rate of growth of the economy (g), we have economic inequality.

The book and the film, in explaining the formula, debunk the once-valid American dream that the next generation will always be more prosperous than the ones before it. And, for a few decades in the US, this was actually true. But, that was because there was a growing and influential middle class that was spawned after World War Two. That burgeoning middle class, though, has grown less and less influential and is in danger of being poorer, like the poor class, because of wealth inequality.

The filmmakers do use the normal talking head interviews of such financial, economic and journalistic notables as Ian Bremmer, Rana Foroohar, Francis Fukiyama and Paul Mason, among many others, and glean their insight. They also use archival footage of world events and images from Hollywood, like Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street (1987),” to show how greed has driven world economics – and the inherent inequality of the haves and have nots – for centuries.

Do not expect to get the answers, from “Capital in the Twenty-first Century,” on how to change things. But, the insightful and entertaining way that Pemberton and company deliver this message of doom gives me hope that some influential eyes can be open to make that change. Nah, that is not going to happen. The rich will get richer and the poor poorer but maybe….

Kino Lorber's "Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century" will be available at virtual cinemas here.