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Film Review: Gripping “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” Warns Against Dystopia

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 30th, 2020

Film poster: “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”

Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Justin Pemberton, 2019) 4 out of 4 stars.

A rollicking journey through the history of capitalist exploitation of the working and middle classes, along with the rise and fall of safeguards against such exploitation by the financial elite, Justin Pemberton’s new documentary, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, takes a potentially dry academic discourse and turns it into a vibrant, cinematic experience. Filling the screen with buoyant montages, split screens, time-lapses and fascinating graphics, Pemberton (Is She or Isn’t He?) takes a profoundly depressing topic (if one is not part of the 1% at the top of the economic pyramid, that is) and turns it into a deceptively good time. At least we can all march towards the apocalypse pretending to enjoy ourselves.

Thomas Piketty, at the Paris School of Economics ©Kino Lorber

The title comes from French economist Thomas Piketty’s eponymous 2013 book, and the author, himself, plays a central role in the movie, his interview complemented by supporting arguments from a plethora of experts in similar and other fields. The central thesis is thus: while the middle of the 20th century saw a rash of policies, in America and elsewhere, that redistributed capital from the top to the middle and bottom, creating more equitable societies, the first two decades of the new millennium have seen the opposite trend (which had begun even earlier, in the 1970s, and then accelerated under folks like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher). Increasingly, social mobility—what we in the United States tout as “the American dream”—is but a fantasy, our position in the world determined at birth and passed down to our progeny. Money once again flows up, and rarely down. Welcome to our present-day dystopia.

Joining Piketty are the likes of historian and author Kate Williams, who brings in some entertaining comparisons to the world of Jane Austen; Columbia University economist Suresh Naidu; Financial Times Editor-at-Large Gillian Tett and Associate Editor Rana Foroohar; Co-Director of the World Inequality Lab Lucas Chancel; U.C. Irvine psychologist Paul Piff; and many more. They all contribute their research to the conversation, making of the film a robust study of where we are now and how we got here. Piff’s examination of the effects of unearned privilege on the human animal is of particular note: he reveals how quickly rigged versions of the board game Monopoly lead participants to assume behavioral patterns of aristocratic entitlement. If it’s mine, it’s because I deserve to have it. This does not bode well for clawing back that which we have now given away.


Beyond the talking heads, Pemberton edits in film clips as entertaining supporting visuals, and scores the whole affair with jaunty music, so we can tap our feet through our tears. And then, just when we think we’ve seen the worst of what lies ahead, he reminds us that around the corner, closer than we might think, lurks the pending disaster of a complete takeover of the workforce by artificial intelligence, when humans might become superfluous. Fortunately, despite the doom and gloom, the arguments for what to do in response are laid out so cogently that Capital in the Twenty-First Century is as much a blueprint for action as a manual of despair. Watch, push back and reclaim your future, lest it resemble the feudal past. The time is now.


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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