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Review: Income inequality? ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ says the system needs fixing

A billboard reads 'World's highest standard of living: There's no way like the American way,' from the documentary 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century'
An image from the documentary “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”
(Studio Canal/Kino Lorber)

Income inequality has been a hot topic of late, accelerated, like so many other things, by the coronavirus pandemic. You may not be pining for a deep dive into the economics of it all, but the new documentary “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” is here to do just that in an informative and mostly entertaining way.

Based on the controversial 2013 bestseller by French economist Thomas Piketty, the film lays out that tome’s ideas that slow growth and an outsize accumulation of wealth at the top are leading the world back to disparities not seen since before the Industrial Revolution. While Piketty’s cause and effect have been debated (with some even questioning whether the enormous gap is a bad thing), the most intriguing aspect about the film is the larger story it tells about capitalism, its variants and alternatives.

As directed by New Zealand filmmaker Justin Pemberton, “Capital” is a sleek tour of economic history over the last 400 years or so. The inevitable talking heads are broken up by glossy photography, graphics and news footage. Clips from movies such as “Pride and Prejudice” (2005) and “Les Misérables” (2012) are deployed liberally, visually echoing the book’s use of historical novels to illustrate the earlier periods.

While Piketty is the primary voice, the film’s narrative is fleshed out by other academics and authors, including British historian Kate Williams, Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz and British journalist Paul Mason (“PostCapitalism”). Though it takes nearly an hour to reach the 21st century, the background is useful context for what we face when we get there.

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The most fascinating bit of the movie, which seems like a bit of a tangent but one worth noting, involves a psychology study at UC Berkeley. Hundreds of subjects were paired to play the board game Monopoly. A coin flip determined which player would be “rich”: given twice as much money to start, allowed to roll two dice to advance more rapidly around the board and collect twice as much money when passing “Go.” The results do not bode well for the emergence of our better angels.

At well under two hours, the film is certainly a more efficient way to digest Piketty’s theories than reading the book — at 800-plus pages in paperback — or listening to the 26-hour audio version. (Not one to scrimp, Piketty’s recent follow-up, “Capital and Ideology,” is more than 1,200 pages.)

How one responds to the ideas within the documentary will largely depend on one’s own ideological tilt. When the book came out, its suggestion of redistribution of wealth through taxation seemed politically untenable, at least in the U.S. But given the Great Recession of 2008 and the disparities in equality laid bare by the pandemic, it’s clear that something isn’t working.

‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’

In English and French with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes

Playing: Available May 1 via virtual cinemas, Laemmle Theatres (https://kinonow.com/capital-laemmle-theatres) and Arena Cinelounge (http://arenascreen.com/)

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