Hoping to spur debate about income inequality, as “An Inconvenient Truth” did over climate change, Jacob Kornbluth’s “Inequality for All” listens intently as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recounts the history of America’s rich/poor divide and argues that the status quo is destroying our nation. Kornbluth has it easier than Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim did on the environmental film: Here, the job is not to convince us of something many Americans don’t want to believe, but to address something we all know is happening and nail down just how bad it really is. Judging from the pit left in a viewer’s stomach, it does the job pretty well. The trouble will be influencing those who make policy.
Like “Truth,” this film avoids the familiar impartial-arbiter mode of documentary filmmaking and adopts a single perspective as its own. (Viewers will not, in other words, hear from any Gordon Gekko types arguing that wealth belongs to those who can take it.) Both films pair bits of biographical color with footage of well-polished lectures, bringing in just enough outside material to make them feel like real movies.
We meet people at both ends of the spectrum: A married couple with decent-sounding jobs and responsible lifestyles who, between them, have less than $150 in the bank; and a venture capital executive who, in his own words, makes “a ridiculous amount of money.”
Refreshingly, the latter man — Nick Hanauer, who got his start in his family’s pillow-manufacturing company — agrees that the shift of more and more wealth into fewer pockets isn’t good in the long run, even for the rich. He says he once believed, as so many of his peers do, that he was a “job creator” and should therefore be favored by government policies. Then he realized that even the most profligate billionaires don’t buy enough goods to keep an economy robust: His middle-class customers, Hanauer says, were the real job creators.
Reich has a mountain of data to back that up. He shows how one graph — a history of the concentration of wealth that peaks dramatically at 1928 and 2007 — coincides with many other data sets, always finding unfavorable outcomes in the years when the fewest had the most.
Those graphs represent dramatic insights, but they zip by in a film that has so many things to address: technology’s effect on jobs (it hasn’t reduced their number, just lowered their average wage); the myth of upward mobility in the United States (Britain, that bastion of class-entrenchment, has more movement upward); and the ways in which the middle class coped for decades with stagnant wages but has now used up its options.
Gore’s film was based on one PowerPoint lecture, while this follows Reich’s semester-long “Wealth and Poverty” class at Berkeley. Predictably, it feels rushed, which is inevitable for a doc intending to reach — and to rally — a mainstream audience. But any politician hoping to redistribute America’s wealth should screen it before every stump speech — and shout, “Hey, listen to this part!” when Reich notes that all “free markets” have rules. The important question is who benefits from them.
DeFore is a freelance writer.
PG. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row, Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Angelika Film Center. Contains thematic elements, some violence, strong language and smoking images. 89 minutes.