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« Halloween stays on top. Suspiria packs houses (albeit only two of them) | Main | Tweetweek »
Sunday
Oct282018

Doc Corner (Surprise Weekend Edition!): 'The Price of Everything'

By Glenn Dunks

We took a week off recently due to office job duties so as a means of not getting behind in the schedule, we're posting a (for now) one-off weekend documentary review for your Sunday reading.

The world is a distressing place right now where seemingly everything is terrible. It’s only natural that documentary filmmaking would reflect this global tussle for law and democracy. If these films aren’t telling us something frightening and new then they at least usually these films at least attempt to show us something familiarly awful from a new angle or with an unfamiliar point of view. I’m here to tell you, however, that one of 2018’s most miserable moviegoing experiences isn’t about war or famine, disease or political unrest. Rather, it’s about the art world. A ghastly portrait of some of society’s worst impulses of greed and capitalist grotesquery.

The world of Nathaniel Kahn’s slickly polished and glossy yet hollow documentary The Price of Everything is one ripe for interrogation. And yet this film doesn’t take advantage of the uniquely wide-net of talent and personalities that it has access to. Among others, there’s the delightful yet sad parallels in name and career of Jeff Koons and Larry Poons, there’s Gerhard Richter albeit briefly, and there’s the back rooms of Sotheby’s of New York with Executive Vice President Amy Cappallazzo as she prepares for an auction worth obscene amounts of money including one painting by Henri Matisse that she ballparks at around a couple of hundred million dollars. Far out.

The problem is not even that The Price of Everything has no point of view about its subject – if it does, it's a wishy washy one – but rather that it seems to deliberately go out of its way to not have one. And then at times, Khan even appears to have become seduced by the world he has entered. Stefan Edlis, an art collector whose apartment is a veritable whose who of the contemporary art world, all of which costs a fortune and looks hideously arranged like somebody with a wardrobe of odd shoes, never misses an opportunity to brag about his collections (including Koons’ “Rabbit” which he purchased for under a million dollars and is now worth approximately $65million) while the film never misses an opportunity to revel in this man’s obsessions. Like audiences who flocked to a gold toilet to get a glimpse of how the other half lives, Khan’s film looks at the at world but walks away with little to say at best and at worst kind of smitten by the idea of what it must be like to own a damned golden toilet.

The film unfortunately recalls Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, a documentary far more enamoured by Guggenheim’s wealth that the art she helped curate. Certainly, it’s far removed from the likes of Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery or any number of other biographical documentaries about artists that while perhaps plain at least know ultimately that the art transcends all else. There is little of that here, although Kahn lucked out at least with Poons, who gets one of the more featured narrative strands as he completes a series of expansive works that soon finds him in the art world’s good graces once more. But even though his image graces the poster, his POV isn't well reflected in the moviemaking.

If Poons is the light then Koons with his factory of art constructors, plus Cappellazzo are the villains who the film nonetheless finds more interesting. Cappellazzo in particular has several moments of audacious art world commentary that are more or less laughed off. How about when told that an artist would rather his work be exhibited in a museum, she responds with disgust. “Museums? Ugh!” before continuing on that “That’s just a very socialist democratic way, like, of avoiding having to deal with, like, rich people who want them.” Yikes.

The Price of Everything actually opens with a really fascinating observation: “It’s very important for good art to be expensive… You only protect things that are valuable”. In the light of FilmStruck’s demise especially, it’s a sad yet true indictment of art and culture that “If something has no financial value, people don’t care.” One doesn't need to stretch the imagination to far to assume that if necessarily, Netflix would dump their auteur festival pick-ups and documentaries if they ceased to offer their brand anything that Adam Sandler couldn't provide threefold. But Khan’s film doesn’t actually want to investigate this train of thought.  Like the old saying that gives the film its title, The Price of Everything appears to know the price of a lot and the value of not much. Preferring instead to focus on wealth and excess and that is what ultimately makes this film a rather miserable experience. I sank into my chair watching it, depressed at the audacity of it all and disappointed that it wasn’t outraged or even interested in why this is the way it is.

Release: Currently in limited release before airing on HBO on November 12.

Oscar Chances: If it wields itself into public discourse then its broad range of human subjects and sleek look could do it wonders. I suspect, however, that even if it makes the long-list, it won't make it to nominations.

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Reader Comments (2)

It strikes me as a shame that more documentarians do not have a colleague sitting at their elbow asking questions like "What point are you trying to make?" or "How have you made your audience care about your message?" As important as documentaries are in informing the public about issues they might not otherwise learn about, I agree that too often they lack passion and/or perspective, leaving the audience to do the heavy lifting to make the vital emotional connection with the material that creates both value for the viewer and, where applicable, motivation for change.

October 28, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

The filmmaker admitted in an interview on The Frame that until he found Poons, he couldn't find the thread (or the point) of his film. I guess even with that addition, it doesn't work. Too bad. I really do enjoy documentaries on the art world. THE ART OF THE STEAL from 2009 was great, albeit one-sided. I'll wait for the HBO premiere.

October 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPam

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