Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Capital in the Twenty-First Century Movie Poster Image
Chilling documentary about world's economic inequality.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 103 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Offers lots of information about economics and how, unless regulations are in place and middle class is strong, capitalist system is rigged in favor of rich. Viewers will be informed but may not necessarily feel like they can do anything about it. It's pretty dispiriting -- it includes a segment about how young people of today feel that they've been given a "raw deal" -- and it doesn't suggest a very bright future. But perhaps knowledge is better than nothing.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Has interesting interviewees -- including some who can seem brave in their attempts to stand up to impossible odds -- but they're not specifically role models.


Violent news and archival footage. Riots, beatings, angry mobs, people being dragged away. Explosions. Dead bodies in water.


Brief sexual references.


Brief rude gesture.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century is a documentary about the history and dangers of inequality in world economies. Based on the best-selling nonfiction book by economist Thomas Piketty, it offers a solution for this problem, but it's still a pretty alarming and dispiriting movie. Some iffy material makes it most appropriate for teens and up. Archival/news footage includes disturbing images of riots, angry mobs, war, dead bodies, people being beaten and dragged away, and explosions. There are also brief sexual references and a rude gesture.

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What's the story?

CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY explores economic inequality throughout history, arguing that capitalism -- with its promise of equal opportunity -- isn't at all fair. The wealthiest people have always found ways to keep their wealth insulated, whether through inheritance or through closed systems in which the same money is continually recirculated, rather than being invested in the general welfare. Even in China, where the average citizens' income has increased greatly in the past decade, the increases for the top 1% are drastically higher. The wealthy also use many tricks to distance themselves from the poor, the film explains, ranging from the concept of fashion trends to blaming immigrants. The documentary suggests that true prosperity can occur only with a strong middle class and that if regulations aren't put into place, the divide between rich and poor will become disastrous.

Is it any good?

Based on the bestselling nonfiction book by economist Thomas Piketty, this important documentary uses a playful tone to balance its complex language, but the ultimate outlook is still pretty bleak. Directed by Justin Pemberton, Capital in the Twenty-First Century uses many talking heads, including Piketty himself, to explain its thesis. They're accompanied by lots of atmospheric footage, graphics, clips from movies (The Grapes of Wrath, Wall Street, Pride and Prejudice, Les Miserables, Elysium, etc.), and even animations. It works fairly well, given that the information can sometimes be difficult to grasp in its minutiae -- ultimately, the movie allows viewers to come away with a pretty good gist of complex things.

While much of the material is familiar -- including the ineffective but still popular "trickle down" theory -- some of the concepts are shocking. For example, data shows that 85% of capital simply goes around in a closed circle, untouchable by the general public. The film also argues that the concept of the American Dream -- that the next generation can do better than the one that came before it -- is no longer true. Nonetheless, while Capital in the Twenty-First Century asserts that regulation and rebuilding the middle class are the easy answers to a big problem, the actual solutions are much thornier. One interviewee's disturbing speech about horses winds things up, and, despite a small attempt to leave off on a hopeful note, this documentary is absolutely chilling.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century's scenes of violence. Even though it's seen in archival and news footage, how did it make you feel? Is there a difference between seeing real-life violence vs. violence that's part of a fictional story?

  • After seeing the movie, what -- if anything -- do you think people can do about economic inequality?

  • What is the "trickle down" theory? Why doesn't it work, and why is it still tried?

  • Does the movie explain economics clearly? Is it easy to grasp, or is it confusing? If you could ask the filmmakers a question, what would it be?

  • Are documentaries supposed to be objective? Is this one?

Movie details

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