Doc Revisited: “The One Percent”
“The One Percent,” a documentary by Jamie Johnson, first aired on HBO in the good ole days of 2006, when the national unemployment rate was under 5% (now it’s 9.1%) and just 1.1% of homes were in foreclosure (now it’s 4%). But even in these comparatively sunnier times, Johnson felt compelled to address the country’s ever-widening wealth gap.
Johnson’s tone in “The One Percent” is almost prescient of the “Occupy Everywhere” movement proliferating around the world. Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson cosmetics fortune, is a member of the one percent – in fact, his family is among the 400 richest in the U.S. He has unique voice. He is not Michael Moore who speaks, often vociferously, on behalf of the people. Nor is he Charles Ferguson, a pedantic, but insightful journalist.
Johnson is anything but wonky. He is candidly naïve. He interviews Milton Friedman and admits on camera that he’s never read “Capitalism and Freedom.” There’s a brief, rudimentary segment in which he explores how wealthiest one percent holds undue influence in our political system.
The raison d’etre of this film, the idea that plagues Johnson at every family reunion, is financial transparency. His family, his father in particular, beseeches him to put down the camera. “It’s good for you to have something to do with your life,” his family’s wealth manager says, as condescendingly as possible, “but I hate to see you doing this to yourself.” But Johnson insists, for not especially clear reasons, that it’s important to be forthright about one’s financial privilege. It’s a similar impulse that that led to the development of the We Stand with the 99 Percent Blog, which features the stories of the sympathetic, yet financially fortunate, some concealing their faces.
Johnson is wide-eyed and young, and shot this film with the indiscriminate eagerness of a newly-inspired college student. He shoots at private golf club and in the lobby of the decrepit Cabrini-Green Housing projects in Chicago. He interviews his taxi driver and the CEO of Kinkos. He’s especially apt at interviewing fellow once-percenters. His presence – or last name – inspires candor, sometimes of the most unsavory variety. “Well, one day I’d like to go to the Moon and look at the planet Earth and say, ‘Wow, there’s part of my portfolio, ‘” the Kinkos CEO says.
Like the protesters on Wall Street, and across the world, Johnson could not provide you with a coherent list of demands, nor policy recommendations. He just knows that wealth inequality is a subject that needs to be addressed. And sure, there’s a bit of rich-boy shame in the film. But staging a conversation about wealth inequality, even somewhat naïvely, is anything but shameful.
See the trailer:
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