The opening shots of Park Avenue: Money, Power and The American Dream show the famed avenue in all its moneyed glory: idling Mercedes, impeccably coiffed society women and stern limestone facades with white-gloved doormen stationed outside like sentries. It is a vision so lofty that it is almost otherworldly—can the vast majority of Americans even conjure this up as the apex of the American dream, let alone attain it?
It’s a question that director Alex Gibney revisits repeatedly in his documentary about the growing gulf between the rich and poor and how that gulf has been widened by the political manipulations of the country’s wealthiest citizens.
The press release about the film, bashed by The Observer in a previous post, was indeed misleading, but only in what it represented the film to be about: the two Park Avenues. This is not a story about the low or lowly classes. Nor is it really a story about 740 Park, the Upper East Side, the South Bronx or even New York. Those things just happen to be convenient physical touchstones.
This is a story about the richest of the rich, as it were, the residents of 740 Park—a building that is home to more billionaires than any other building in New York—and how they have managed to claim a larger and larger share of the nation’s wealth, or as Mr. Gibney puts it in his opening voice-over, how they have enjoyed “unprecedented prosperity from a system they increasingly control.”
As Michael Gross, the author of 740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building, which Mr. Gibney bought the rights to, wrote us earlier this fall: “we’re both more interested in the perps than the vics.” (Mr. Gross also acted as an adviser on the film and is interviewed extensively alongside New Yorker scribe Jane Mayer, Yale professor Jacob Hacker and Bruce Bartlett, a historian and adviser to presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush, among others.)
Indeed, the documentary unfurls like a crime story, with a raft of damning evidence revealing the shameful acts committed by the masters of the universe in service of accumulating even vaster fortunes than they already have.
At least, it’s a crime story as told by talking heads. This is not a human interest film—partially as a matter of necessity. None of the men at the film’s center—the Koch brothers, Stephen Schwarzman, John Thain, Sen. Chuck Schumer or Paul Ryan consented to an interview. Their onscreen presence is limited to archived videos from dinners and conventions and voice-over explanations from experts. Nor did Mr. Gibney manage to get inside the famed building.
We do get a glimpse into the hallowed halls (or at least the lobby) of 740 Park thanks to a former doorman, who talks about witnessing an eerie shift in the children of the super-rich: as little kids they joke and share special high-fives with the staff, but between the ages of 12 and 15, they shut off completely, emulating their parents’ cool reserve. Also, David Koch is incredibly cheap, giving the doormen who regularly loaded his Hamptons-bound cars with heavy bags a $50 check at the end of the year.
Alas, Mr. Gibney uses such anecdotes to buttress one of his flimsier arguments, backed by a study by UC Berkeley professor Paul Piff: that wealth destroys empathy. The question of why the super-rich behave the way they do, and why they feel the need to claim even greater quantities of wealth, is a complicated (and fascinating) question that demands more in-depth exploration. As such, it’s one which the film should have either mentioned in passing or left alone. Certainly, wealth can and does breed entitlement, but as Mr. Gross says at one point, “some people are just dicks.”
The film includes trips to food pantries in the South Bronx and Wisconsin, an interview with a young social worker speaking about how early opportunity or the lack thereof begins to shape a life and plenty of shots of embattled-looking impoverished Bronx residents, but this all feels like window dressing for the takedown at the heart of the film.
Mr. Gibney is clearly most interested in illustrating how the nation’s wealthiest have rigged the game, not only claiming a disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth via devices like the carried interest tax rate, but using that wealth to fund groups and candidates who have by and large succeeded in turning the dwindling middle class against the the less fortunate, unions and each other. The latter accomplishment is arguably the largest battle won by the one-percenters in the wake of the financial crisis. After all, the great recession began with anger at greedy financial titans and foolhardy hedge funders, but somehow shifted to rage at greedy teachers and foolhardy middle-class home buyers.
And while the outcome of the most recent election at least proves that money is a deciding factor, not the deciding factor in a presidential election, dulling Mr. Gibney’s argument slightly, he makes a compelling case that inequality imperils democracy and that the victims of the inequality include not only those who find themselves in the rapidly expanding underclass, but the American dream itself.