EEC: Documentary Studies

David Brancaccio’s thoughts on “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”

David Brancaccio Jan 14, 2021
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One of the beautiful things about documentary film is value for time spent. “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” took a manageable one hour and 43 minutes of my time. Its inspiration, French economist Thomas Piketty’s widely cited 2014 book of the same name, comes to 700 (and four) pages. Yes, I can speed-read, but not that fast, and that’s not the point. The persistence of economic inequality over the centuries is the point, along with the argument that we are headed quickly for a society where a few people are wicked rich and most are poor, with no middle class.

New Zealand filmmaker Justin Pemberton’s movie is eclectic: Piketty mixed with Jane Austen, “Les Misérables” and Monopoly. The lean-forward-in-your-seat moments come fast and furiously. How about the finding that two-thirds of people in advanced countries are on track to be poorer than their parents?

Or, back to Monopoly (the game, not the antitrust issue) and peer-reviewed experiments out of the University of California, Irvine, showing that when people are rewarded randomly in a game, they develop a sense of entitlement — consistently coming to believe their achievements are due not to luck, but to their superiority. This is one of the reasons inequality is so hard to fight.

While I concede we will be watching more entertaining docs in the coming months (we’re considering one about the cutthroat business of truffle hunting), “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” makes its points vividly. Viewing it will turn you into the inequality authority at your next Zoom gathering.

— David

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” is available to watch using the library service Kanopy, as well as on Netflix or(for a fee) on Amazon Prime, YouTube and other services.Next week, we’ll share some expert analysis as well as reactions from you.

Email us your thoughts and hot takes at And watch this space for next month’s movie selection.

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