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Documentary Review: “Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream”

“Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream” explores the contrast between the rich and the poor in New York City. PHOTO/ PBS

By Carmen Saffioti

Published: December 5th, 2018

As wealth inequality grows in America, it is a critical time to understand and analyze how capitalism bought us there. Documentaries are an excellent medium for doing this. Alex Gibney’s documentary film explores the contrast between the rich and the poor in a place where it is most obvious – New York City.

In Gibney’s film “Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream,” he describes how deeply class differences run, and how the poor and middle classes may never have the chance to reach wealth. Gibney’s film is an exposé of the rich and their mischievous ways of keeping their wealth and keeping the poor in the dark about their situation. For instance, the film outlined the ways the wealthy bribe senators through lobbying in order to help their interests. Throughout the film, Gibney tries to make the audience understand why the wealthy are so self-interested. The answer lies in our psychology; we are interested in helping our own wealth overall, and we sadly show little care for the poor. 

Capitalism, in its most idealistic form, should provide equal opportunity for everyone. However, in practice, this is far from its ideal. Today, the rich are only getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. Most congressmen and politicians (including Trump) are wealthy, and are mostly interested in just helping themselves. This selfishness can be related to a psychological experiment that Gibney referenced. Psychological researchers picked two players to play a game of monopoly, they would flip a coin to see who will be the “wealthy” player and the “poor” player. The game would be rigged so that the wealthy player will always win and get more money. Researchers wanted to see if the wealthy player would help the poor player, or if he would call out the game as unfair. However, this seldom happened and the wealthy player kept all of their wealth. This game of monopoly is a microcosm for what happens in the real world when capitalism allows for the rich to always “win” and for the poor to always “lose.”

Gibney also poses a deeper philosophical question throughout his film, “If wealth is based upon luck, then why do we value it so much?” Gibney uses the example of Park Avenue and South Bronx. In Park Avenue rich, mostly white people live without a care of the people who live on the other side of the river. These people were likely brought up in wealthy families and were awarded the opportunities to succeed. Meanwhile, the people in South Bronx were never given the opportunities to succeed. So then why does our society continuously punish the poor and deprive them of simple opportunities such as an adequate education?  

Many poor people live in ignorance of their condition. Many believe that it is their fault that they are poor, and they fail to speak out against an unfair system. This toxic system is what is destroying the middle class and what is keeping the rich wealthy and keeping the poor in poverty. Gibney’s film does the first step in making a more equal society: letting the people know about unfair systems in a classist society.

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