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With: Thomas Piketty, Suresh Naidu, Rana Foroohar, Gillian Tett, Ian Bremmer, Paul Piff, Kate Williams, Francis Fukuyama, Bryce Edwards, Joseph Stiglitz, Gabriel Zucman, Lucas Chancel, Paul Mason, Faisa Shaheen, Simon Johnson
Written by: Matthew Metcalfe, Justin Pemberton, Thomas Piketty, based on a book by Thomas Piketty
Directed by: Justin Pemberton
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: English, French with English subtitles
Running Time: 103
Date: 05/01/2020

Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on the bestselling non-fiction book by economist Thomas Piketty, this important documentary adopts a playful tone to balance its complex language, but the ultimate outlook is still pretty bleak.

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, economic inequality through history is explored, and argues that capitalism, with its promise of equal opportunity, is not at all fair. The wealthiest have always found ways to keep their wealth insulated, whether through inheritance, or through closed systems in which the same money is continually re-circulated, rather than being invested in the general welfare.

Even in China, where the income of average citizens have increased greatly in the past decade, the increases for the richest top 1% are drastically higher. The wealthy also use many tricks to keep the distance between themselves and the poor, ranging from the concept of fashion trends to blaming immigrants. The documentary suggests that true prosperity can only occur with a strong middle class, and that if regulations aren't put into place, the divide between rich and poor will become disastrous.

Directed by Justin Pemberton, Capital in the Twenty-First Century uses many talking heads, including Piketty himself, to explain its thesis, accompanied by plenty of atmospheric footage, graphics, clips from movies (The Grapes of Wrath, Wall Street, Pride and Prejudice, Les Miserables, Elysium, etc.) and even animations. It works fairly well, given that the information can sometimes be difficult to grasp in its minutiae; the movie allows viewers to come away with a pretty good gist of things.

While much of the material is familiar, including the ineffective, but still popular "trickle-down" theory, some of the concepts are shocking. For example, data that shows 85% of capital simply goes around in a closed circle, untouchable by the general public. It also argues that the concept of the American Dream, that the next generation can do better than the one before it, is no longer true.

Nonetheless, while Capital in the Twenty-First Century asserts that regulation and re-building the middle class are the easy answers, the actual solutions are much thornier. One interviewee's disturbing speech about horses winds things up, and despite a small attempt to leave off on a hopeful note, this documentary is absolutely chilling.

Kino Lorber released a Blu-ray in the summer of 2020, with an excellent audio and video transfer. Extras include an interview with director Justin Pemberton, an interview with co-writer/co-producer Matthew Metcalfe, a deleted scene (1 min.), an hour-long roundtable discussion led by The New Republic editor Chris Lehmann, and a trailer.

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