Capital in the 21st Century




Behind a dull title lies an engrossing documentary for our times.


Capital in the 21th Century

The title Capital in the 21th Century may not immediately make you sit up and beg for more. However, behind the name there is a very absorbing and worthwhile documentary covering a potted history of capital from the 18th century onwards and bringing the story almost up to date. The title stems from the fact it is based on the book of the same name. How come, you might well ask, can a historical account of an impenetrable subject such as capital make an exciting film. Well, it does just that.

Director Justin Pemberton takes the book by French economist Thomas Piketty and illustrates it through a montage of film extracts, posters, quotations, cartoons and other archive material plus newly filmed interviews with noted specialists on the subject. Piketty concludes that nothing much has changed since, say, the 1700s, when aristocrats owned most of the wealth by being landowners or through inheritance. This ensured that about 70 per cent of the land was owned by the elite rich who held on to their wealth without distributing it to their employees who were little more than slaves.

Wars, strikes and revolutions come and go but the situation hardly varies because success feeds itself and it is still the case that two-thirds of the population dies with nothing, ending up being worse off than their own parents. During depressions banks fail, there is no work available, inflation leads to devaluation, and even the Industrial Revolution brought about redundancy when mechanisation took over manual jobs.

It’s a complex issue but it is illustrated here with a lucid and lively sense of humour as Pemberton includes extracts from films including The Triumph of the Will, Les Misérables, A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice, The Grapes of Wrath, Wall Street and, even, The Simpsons, all of which illustrate most entertainingly his contributors’ and Piketty’s points of view. It is a bitter pill but here tastes as sweet as a nut.

Unfortunately, the documentary was made in 2019, since when a global pandemic called Covid-19 has had a catastrophic effect on the global economy. It may be that Justin Pemberton has enough material now to make a Capital sequel.


Original title: Capital in the Twenty-First Century.




Featuring  Kate Williams, Francis Fukuyama. Gillian Tett, Faiza Shaheen, Bryce Edwards, Paul Mason, Rana Foroohar, Ian Bremner, Paul Piff, Lucas Chancel, Joseph Stiglitz, Suresh Naidu, Simon Johnson, Gabriel Zucman and Thomas Piketty, plus archive footage.


Dir Justin Pemberton, Pro Yann La Prado and Matthew Metcalfe, Screenplay Justin Pemberton, Matthew Metcalfe and Thomas Piketty, based on the book by Thomas Piketty, Ph Jacob Bryant and Darryl Ward, Ed Sabdie Bompar, Music Jean-Benoit Dunckel.


General Film Corporation/Upside Down/New Zealand Film Commission/Images & Sound/Canal+/France Televisions-StudioCanal.
103 mins. France/New Zealand. 2019. Rel: 25 September 2020. Available on Amazon Prime. Cert. 12.