HBO Documentary Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Nathaniel Kahn
Screenwriter:  Nathaniel Kahn
Screened at: HBO, NYC, 9/26/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
The Price of Everything (2018)
Most people ignore high art as the playthings of the rich, going to museums only when they’re traveling because the Prado, the Louvre, the Vatican are the places to peruse and to take selfies to show your envious friends back home.  Even people who don’t know art from shinola have at least once expressed their bafflement at contemporary paintings, derogating them with “My five-year-old daughter can do that.”  This brings us to a big question: does a painting have value beyond what people are willing to pay for it, or does a painting sell for reasons that have nothing to do with its intrinsic quality?  Going further, is there even such a thing as intrinsic quality in a painting, or is it like gold, a useless metal that has a price only because people give it a price?

Philosophic questions of this nature abound in Nathaniel Kahn’s beautifully photographed documentary, consisting of statements by artists, collectors, dealers, auctioneers, and one art historian.  I recall that when I was a kid, the most expensive painting, “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer” sold for two millions dollars, which nowadays is like chump change when at least one painting recently sold for $450 million.

Those who people Kahn’s doc are the one percent that we hear so much about in the Trump age.  Some are collectors who appreciate painting and sculpture.  Others are investing, which is not a bad idea if you know what you’re doing because at least one investor sold a painting for well over one hundred times what he paid for it.  Some buy art to keep up with the Joneses.  If your neighbor has a Poons, you’ve got to have another for your apartment or penthouse.

For me the most interesting scene takes place in New York’s Sotheby’s auction house where the smell of money is so strong you might be able to catch a whiff of its scent from your theater seat.  An auctioneer starts a work at one million and without a helluva lot of salesmanship gets the price raised so quickly that you might think he’s selling cattle for prices merely in the hundreds.

Some of the names dropped include Basquiat, Gerhard Richter, Jeff Koons, and Maurizio Cattelan whose works sell for millions.  Two people stand out from the rest.  One guy, the most approachable and down-to-earth is Stefan Edlis, a Vienna-born Holocaust survivor who three years ago donated $500 million to a museum in Chicago.  He even shows us a passport from the Nazi government with a big, blue “J” on the cover to denote his Jewishness.  Somehow he escaped from the slaughter as late as 1941, making his fortune here in America.  He focuses on pop art and has Roy Lichtenstein works in his bedroom.  Another is the diminutive Larry Poons, an abstractionist whose popularity soared during the 1960s, then declined, and then rose again as though it were an offering in the stock market that lucky people held onto when it fell and cashed out when it came back.  Of all the characters the people the documentary, he is the one who most clearly states that there is no relationship between the price of art and its real value (that is, if there is such a thing as real value).

Dealers, artists, collectors and art historians will be attracted to this movie, which was directed by Nathaniel Kahn–who has contributed other documentaries including the 2003 “My Architect”—trying to understand his architect father, Louis Kahn, who died bankrupt and alone in 1974 in a Pennsylvania Station restroom in New York.  And so will progressives and socialists: this will provide for them more ammunition to deflate our capitalist system which, in the case of art, seems to reward or denigrate people at random with little or no connection to any standard of value.

98 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

GENERATION WEALTH – movie review


Amazon Studios
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Screened at: Dolby24, NYC, 6/5/18
Opens: July 20, 2018

Laura Greenfield, a photographer who gets the lens turned on herself several times during “Generation Wealth,” indicts consumerism not only in the U.S. but also in countries that have been infected by the disease recently, principally China.  She deals with a wholly different degree of unhappiness than Ken Loach, whose working-class documentaries show empathy with the poorest people in the UK and Europe, particularly migrant workers.  By contrast Greenfield believes that the excesses in the U.S. are driving the country off the cliff, much as (allegedly) Ancient Egypt went over the edge at a time that it was at its greatest prosperity.  One would expect her to draw a parallel as well with the fall of Rome, though it was not the excesses that led to its decline but rather its overextension in the known world that could not be defended by its armies.

Still, she believes that you can understand the mainstream people in the U.S. by dealing with the excesses of a minority but this simply does not make sense. Some Americans work 100 hours a week in law offices and financial firms to build greater fortunes, ignoring their families and depriving both their spouses and children of loving attention and discovering that the gobs of money did not make them happier.  A far greater problem is the need for so many of our people to work two or three jobs simply to make ends meet and thereby spending insufficient time with their families. It’s better to be rich and ignore your families than be poor and doing the same.

At any rate, she does not focus strictly on the desire for a great deal of money especially by today’s young people as shown by polls that find college students overwhelmingly saying that money was their most important goal.  She zeroes in on women who do not want simply to keep up with or even surpass the Joneses but with women who want to look like the entertainers they see on TV and in the movies.  They go in for plastic surgery and after getting the initial treatment they want more of the same.  One woman, Suzanne, is  a hedge fund executive who wakes up at age forty to discover that what she really wanted was children.    Strippers, who actually go to dance school to learn how to massage the poles become celebrities and have money thrown at them by delighted men.

The most interesting character is Florian Homm (see his Wikipedia article), a German businessman who was indicted in the U.S. for investment fraud, fled to Italy which set him up for extradition to the U.S., but wound up back in Germany where his country would not extradite him.  He did not look unhappy as he puffed on a fat cigar.

So let us not feel too sorry for the small minority of folks who are celebrities, or who want to be celebs, and who have the money and the inclination to reshape their figures.  The people here are the extreme.  Why Greenfield understands the majority of people by studying the extreme is beyond me.  What’s more the entire film is unfocused, shifting from a hunger for wealth to a desire for celebrity status, never showing how conspicuous consumption by a relatively small number of people is a real problem for America or even for China and European nations who are generating a love for money beyond what a normal person should want.

Rated R.  107 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C+
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – C+