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Kiwi documentary-maker takes on Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century

directed by Justin Pemberton

Justin Pemberton's based-on-the-book history of capitalism risks being overtaken by events.

Did humanity ever experience a golden age? There was a time, between the 1950s and 1970s, when strong welfare states, high taxes, socialised healthcare and significant curbs on capital produced the smallest gap between rich and poor. These were the years in which British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said, “Most of our people have never had it so good”.

Macmillan was probably right. Those years were an aberration. Unfettered capitalism returned with a vengeance to restore the natural order – one that enriches the already wealthy at the expense of the historically destitute.

This is the discomfiting fact that emerges from Kiwi documentarian Justin Pemberton’s slick and energetic adaptation of surprise bestseller Capital in the 21st Century, by French economist Thomas Piketty. Since the late 1970s, Piketty argues, the upper 10th percentile of society have seen their wealth grow to obscene, Louis XVI proportions. Meanwhile, though global life expectancy has risen, the poor still die much sooner than the wealthy. “Poverty,” Piketty observes, “is a death sentence.” It was the case for centuries, and is becoming so again.

Pemberton’s film is an accessible history lesson, rocketing from agrarian pre-revolutionary France to modern, state-capitalist and anti-democratic China by a surging and shifting montage of archives and collages. Cleverly, Pemberton, whose past films have ranged from studies on nuclear power and the Five Eyes Network to the Richie McCaw doco, Chasing Great, snatches ideas from popular culture using the likes of Pride and Prejudice, The Simpsons, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and Geoff Murphy’s Utu to illustrate complex points.

Capital, however, is overshadowed by predecessors that have made better and more complicated arguments in similar ways: Requiem for the American Dream, Capitalism: A Love Story, Inside Job, and Adam Curtis’ HyperNormalisation.

It also seems a film out of time, for there is curious little mention of our impending climate catastrophe. Piketty’s remedy back in 2014 was simply to tax things back together again. But a touch of redistribution will not stop the seas rising. In the face of apocalypse, the entire system of capitalism probably needs a bit of a redo. A more radical future, after all, demands more radical action.



Video: Transmissions Films

This article was first published in the October 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.