Capital in the Twenty-First Century

B+ Financial documentary
Directed by Justin Pemberton
Based on the book by Thomas Piketty

I can’t tell you how many documentaries I’ve seen about economic inequality. But this one is different. It’s kind of fun while it makes you angry. It also takes a wide view of the problem, looking back into the 18th century and forward into the future. And it’s not just about America; it covers multiple nations, world wars, and the one percent as a worldwide phenomenon.

It’s also one of the most visually and musically exciting documentaries I’ve seen – or at least one of the most that’s about something other than show business. The movie is filled with clever visuals, including clips from old and relatively new Hollywood movies, such as A Tale of Two Cities (1935 version), Gold Diggers of 1933, Grapes of Wrath, and the 2005, Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice (when you think about it, the story is all about money). Lively, popular music graces the soundtrack.

I must admit that my views on the subject are close to the filmmakers – although they know far more about the subject than I do (I’m the sort of person whose mind wanders when someone talks about investments). Either way, I try to judge this sort of film on its educational and entertainment quality; not on whether I agree with it.

Capital has an unusual opening for a left-leaning documentary: It attacks Communism. Describing East Germany as it collapses, the film describes the former country as a failed stage. It then suggests that our capital-based system may fail as well before starting the story before the industrial revolution.

The documentary has no single narrator. It has at least nine, including Stanford’s Francis Fukuyama​, CNN’s Rana Foroohar​, and, of course, Thomas Piketty – whose book the film was based on. Two of these spoke in French with subtitles. The rest were clearly native-English speakers.

These scholars explain how wars, revolutions, and depressions shaped the global economy into what it is today…and that isn’t good at all – especially in America. Baby boomers were able to buy homes, but their children cannot. Wealth is only for the wealthy. And when most people have less than their parents had, they start finding scapegoats – usually people with a different religion or skin color.

According to the film, the Chinese economy seems to be doing much better than ours – and even for the average person. Most Chinese parents have good reasons to believe that their children will be better off than they are. Few Americans can accurately expect the same.

Capital doesn’t offer much in terms of fixing the problem. The rich have it all, we get the crumbs, and there’s nothing we can do about it. As technology reduces the number of jobs, they won’t need so many of us.

The filmmakers didn’t know that a worldwide pandemic would change everything (including how the film would open). The world economy now appears to have no floor. We don’t know what’s coming next.

You can buy tickets for Capital in the Twenty-First Century from the Rafael or Roxie websites starting Friday (there may be other theaters selling tickets, as well).