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Inequality for All: Documentary Antidote to "Elysium Economy"

From gated communities in outer space to graphs about who owns the wealth, two new films are giving Americans a window into the issue of income inequality

Matt Damon in Elysium. Photo by Sony Pictures Digital Productions.

Jodie Foster is a one-percenter in space in Elysium. Photo by Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc.

Two cinematic experiences about extreme wealth inequality are worth seeing, one dramatic and the other documentary.

I recently saw the Hollywood blockbuster film Elysium, directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9) and starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. The film depicts a dystopian Los Angeles in 2154, degraded by ecological disasters and extreme inequalities of wealth.

Elysium is both a metaphor for immigration but also a dire warning about our society's extreme inequalities of wealth

In the film, the super-rich have relocated to the ultimate gated community, a pristine orbital station called "Elysium," which is based on location shots from Malibu, Calif., and replete with turquoise swimming pools and palatial mansions. On Elysium, all physical illnesses are instantly cured by climbing into a "med-bay," a contraption that looks like a designer MRI machine. As a result, life expectancy is three time longer on Elysium than on earth.

Which brings us to the film's scenes of earth, which were filmed in a populated garbage dump in Mexico City. There, people dream of getting to Elysium to cure their cancers and other illnesses. Max DeCosta, played by Matt Damon, is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation and his only chance of survival is to get to Elysium. In his quest to get to Elysium, he becomes an unwitting hero.

Elysium is a metaphor for immigration but also a dire warning about our society's extreme inequalities of wealth. I recommend it for the powerful images of science fiction inequality—if you can stomach the Hollywood combat and chase scenes. If you abhor action pictures, I recommend the film's amusing website, which includes advertisements for businesses like "Elysium Realty," whose slogan is "Live Above It All," and lists homes starting at $250 million.

The antidote to the Elysium economy comes in the form of a new documentary, Inequality for All, which appears in theaters on Friday, September 27. The documentary stars former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who serves as storyteller and tour guide.

The filmmakers hope that Inequality for All will give the economic justice movement boost, similar to the one the climate movement got from Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.

This is a powerful documentary, in part because the dramatic realities of U.S. inequality are revealed with powerful graphics, memorable examples, and Reich's self-effacing humor. We are now living through a second "Gilded Age," a period of extreme wealth inequality that mirrors the dizzying disparities that came after the Industrial Revolution, from the 1890s to 1920.

A recent study by economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty reveals that the top 10 percent of U.S. income earners took home more than 50 percent of all income in 2012, the highest share recorded since modern data collection on income began in 1917.

Inequality for All offers a number of possible solutions for this problem, such as raising the minimum wage, campaign finance reform, restoring tax progressivity, and expanding workers rights to organize and join unions. But as I argue in my book, 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality is Wrecking the World, we need to press for bold policies to reduce the concentration of wealth and power.

To reverse our drift toward greater inequality we need a robust inheritance or estate tax that would limit intergenerational transfers of wealth larger than $50 million—and the elimination of offshore tax havens, which enable trillions of dollars in income to escape taxation and accountability.

Inequality for All is blessed with backing from the Weinstein Company, a major Hollywood studio, and opens in 25 cities on September 27. But even the best documentaries only get a couple of days in commercial theaters unless the audiences turn out.

Now its up to us: Spread the word and organize a group of friends to go see Inequality for All.


Chuck Collins auth picChuck Collins wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Chuck is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies where he directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good.

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