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A Documentary Antidote to a Future ‘Elysium’

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.
Matt Damon battles his way toward affordable health care for the masses in Elysium. Photo by Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc.

By Chuck Collins

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

I recently saw the Hollywood blockbuster film Elysiumdirected 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.

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 pic


  • Johnny Dollar

    Can’t afford movie tickets. Let me know when it’s on free TV.

    • allen801

      you don’t need a movie or TV just observe the world around you, unless of course you live in one of the 1%’s gated communities

      • Johnny Dollar

        Doesn’t matter. I just checked the 83 theatre screens in my area and none of them are showing it anyway. I guess there’s no interest in financial inequality issues among the 3 million people around here which is encouraging. Doesn’t surprise me.

        Now to watch some horse racing, baseball, and perhaps golf and football this afternoon. Any are much more interesting. Come to think of it, people watch this entertainment because there IS inequality and we need to see where it is today.

        • allen801

          well then you must live in a gated community with the rest of the 1% … kudos to you dear fellow ….

          when you’re done watching your sports which celebrate inequality maybe you can take a spin on your yacht or better yet, leave your gated community for a lovely jaunt to the inner city or impoverished rural areas to see the how the real 99% live and hope they don’t drag you out of your bentley and kill you to pay for food which your fascist plutocrats in the house just voted to rescind

          and a good day to you sir

          • Johnny Dollar

            What an imagination you have. When I must sign my next one year lease in the next few days, I’ll tell the building manager that the buzzers here mean that I live in a gated community. Wait – I better not share that joke, it might give them ideas of how to raise the rent next year on my inner city apartment that is conveniently located on the bus line.

            I happen to be in the bottom quintile of income, but I don’t let that bother me. Nor am I envious of those doing better. Speaking of doing better, you should have seen the comeback that Mucho Macho Man pulled off in the 10th race at Santa Anita on Sunday. He hadn’t won for awhile, but he gave a great effort after displaying some mediocraty. Yeah, he only paid $5.20 to win, but it was nice to see him back in top form again. He knows how to compete.

            Ever been to a sporting event? Nobody asks you what your income or occupation is, just a whole lot of people trying to have fun. Since my income is limited, I choose to watch most events on TV. Sometimes I win tickets or get invited by richer acquaintances though. They know I like them as people no matter how much our wealth differential might be.

            Due to your attitude I hope you have a really crappy day. I think that’s what makes you happy anyway.

          • allen801

            ok so by your own accounts you are squarely in the 99% and happy with your lot in life…good for you

            Then why do post on this blog? A blog entitled “” where every post by every author discusses the widening divide between the have’s and have nots.

            Why post here? are you trying to change the mind of the readers of this blog? Just to say i’m in the 99% and i like it?

            For your information i’ve been an engineer for 20 years, i’ve seen plenty of my fellow americans laid off and their jobs sent to Mexico and China, Vietnam etc… I’ve seen more people laid off than hired during these past 20 years … good hard working americans just trying to pay their bills. Unlike you, i have empathy towards these folks who have had lost their houses endured divorces or been reduced to just scraping by in minimum wage jobs in the prime of their working years.

            Am i pissed that the corporate powers running this country ruined my profession? That I can’t do as well as my parents did with less of an education than i have. Yeah i do. I guess that makes me a complainer.

            It’s not so much that i’m envious of the rich sir. I would just like to recreate a the time (as when my parents were my age) when a hard working americans playing by the rules can achieve the american dream. I’m not against the rich per say but i see them as the primary driver of the widening gulf between them and everyone else. What other conclusion can you draw?

            and a crappy day 2 you sir

          • Johnny Dollar

            I simply find this site and its affiliated sites cheap entertainment. The articles and some comments are way more amusing than I can get anywhere else. Ai least for the price. It’s not everywhere one can find authors at a tax advantaged organization complaining about other people’s taxes, for instance.

            Engineering is a fine profession. I know a number of them. Also grew up with kids that went on to be physicians, scientists, bankers, attorneys, professors, and workers in various trades, unionized or not. Frankly, I have never heard any one of them complain that they failed to do as well as their parents did. Some did and some perhaps didn’t, but I have never heard such a comment of entitlement! Until now, that is.

            What I have always believed in is competition. For me that started on the baseball fields in first or second grade. It continued all through my working years until the day I decided I’d had enough of government regulation and taxation. Took me 10 minutes to decide to quit a job of over 25 years. I went from misery to virtual playboy status in one day.

            Now I have found new competition to keep me happy. Some days it is in the stock market, other days it is at the racetrack. I can always find it somewhere. You should be happy to know that some people were taking my money at the racetrack a month ago. I have no idea who they were, simply knew they were playing better than me and taking my money. I have been competing better recently and feel good about my chances at Keeneland today. I simply ignore the negativity some people express here and do the best I can each and every day. It is quite simple. And fun.

          • allen801

            quote: ” I went from misery to virtual playboy status in one day”, to be honest i don’t know what the fuck this means??? you quit a job of 25 years, pay your landlord his monthly ransom and yet u became a playboy???

            listen mack, this is the last time i will ever respond to your nonsense …. fuck you and the horse you rode in on …. your failure to grasp the economic realities that surround you baffle me and we will never agree

            piss off

          • Johnny Dollar

            That is precisely what entertains me – to see somebody go down (or was it up – I can’t tell) in flames as demonstrated by your language. Next Tuesday would be Eddie Rickenbacker’s birthday. He caused many flameouts too, but I can’t claim to be a hero like him. I’m simply a guy that tries to have fun every day. And today I did. You are a real hoot!

            You may be happy to know that I didn’t do very good at Keeneland today. However, I more than made up for those mistakes at Belmont Park in the eighth race. Made several $hundred in the stock market as well today. Never changed out of my pajamas.

            Tomorrow morning there is a gorgeous young bartender I might want to walk over and see. I don’t have to figure that out right now. I’ll leave that important decision for overnight thinking. At least I know after today I can afford eggs, sausage, hash browns and some beer.

            That’s all that matters. Oh – except for one other thing, I would never use your kind of language around that nice girl. She would immediately know I was a looser. Fortunately, she already knows otherwise.

          • Jorge Gaitan

            People like you scare me johnny doller, or should I say your ignorance scares me. You fail to see that the people in the upper 1% are going to keep widening the gap to the point where you will have to be rich just to se a hoarse race. And it may not be in your life time but maybe your kids or other family members. You are definitely missing some points. Maybe spending some time doing research on the matter instead of at the track will give you a better sense of what is going on and will continue to go on unless we really put some thought into it

          • Johnny Dollar

            You seem to be doing enough worrying about the “upper 1%” for both of us. Whoever they are, I simply don’t care. As long as they properly file their tax returns like everybody else. They do pay about 40% of all personal income taxes collected after all. Seems a little steep to me, but I don’t worry about that either.

            What I am worried about is the eighth race at Belmont Park today. A real head-scratcher. Oh well, competition is what it’s all about. The racetrack is very democratic that way. After all, one can choose to play or not. It is the cheapest sports entertainment ticket around and will always be so due to the sport’s structure of revenues. A point you seem to be missing.

          • Jorge Gaitan

            So your saying you lack concern for what is really happening, I rest my case

          • Johnny Dollar

            Not exactly. You misquote me. I simply lack concern for your paranoia.

          • Jorge Gaitan

            Lol, ignorance is bliss comes to mind reading your reply. Good luck on your races

          • Johnny Dollar

            Ignorance and indifference are two different things. You should look them up.

          • Jorge Gaitan

            I’m pretty sure I havent put a label on anybody, I’ve simply been pointing out thoughts and actions. To say that you are ignorant on the matter of increasing inequality in our society isn’t meant to be deragatory. I’m ingnorant to hoarse racing and the stock market, doesnt mean I’m stupid.

  • Conelrad

    A grain of salt re _Inequality for All_: read Yves Smith’s “Robert Reich, Inequality’s Intellectual Fraudster” ( ).

    • allen801

      never did understand the left’s support of “Free trade” Reich and Krugman included… from a political point of view, by the late ’80’s the democrats decided that they also needed to be the party of wall street since their traditional base of unions and older new dealers were dying off… so since they we’re dragged to the right on economic issues by republicans they did just that to win elections

      that’s the way it looks from here

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