The One Percent: What American Dream?

It's a country built around the concept of a 'dream', but America's growing inequality gap is a nightmare for everyday man as this film portrays.
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It's a country built around the concept of a 'dream', but America's growing inequality gap is a nightmare for everyday man as this film portrays.

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I came across the film "The One Percent" whilst reading an online article in the Daily Telegraph about the austerity plight of Princess Michael of Kent or Baroness Marie Christine Anna Agnes Hedwig Ida; née von Reibnitz who resides at Kensington Palace. I won't traumatise you with the details, I often find myself upset on my weekly foodbank work and I wouldn't want her struggle to put you through the same.

Idly reading the comments below the article I was unsurprised to find that most of them were spent criticising her. This is no longer a shock to me. Read most online right wing newspaper comment sections nowadays and an unexpectedly large amount are not in agreement with the editorial. This must disturb the proprietors, who would perhaps expect the peasants to revolt, but not the bien pensants who are supposed to snort up the editorial line. Judging by the consistent amount of vitriol directed at what would previously been known as the establishment, these are not threads that are being hijacked by radicals, but the normal readership saying they have had enough. It was here, in the comments section, that I was pointed towards the documentary that is "The One Percent".
If you've never heard of this well-made documentary, don't be surprised, neither had I or anyone I've met. It's never been on TV (to my knowledge) and I can't remember anyone ever talking about it. Just over an hour long and made in 2006, the film explores the discrepancy between the very poorest in America and the very richest (the "one percent"). It’s master-touch (given the subject matter) is that the film was created by a member of the one percent, Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson consumer-goods fortune.

Don't let that put you off. Johnson is very hard to dislike and would appear to be part of a dying breed "the conscientious capitalist" - although I personally believe that there is more than an element of self-preservation in his work. No civilisation in history has ever survived such a gap in wealth and he understands that he might well be part of a more literal dying breed if things don't change. I also think he's on a guilt trip, but I say this in the nicest possible way - most of us could benefit from acting on our guilt-trips.

There are touching, Shakespearean moments - Jamie is preoccupied with his father's negative reaction to the film being made. This reaction clearly hurts and confuses Jamie, who consistently reminds his father of a similarly controversial home-made film he made in his youth about the injustice of working conditions in Apartheid South Africa.

Johnson & Johnson are US aristocracy, and Jamie's name Baby-Oils the wheels, ensuring the production is well financed and runs smoothly. His position also ensures that we are able to meet people normally off-limits to documentary makers, people like Milton Friedman. The irate, late economist eventually throws him out of his office for daring to challenge his increasingly questionable theory of "trickle down" economics - a system with a convenient ignorance of the corrupt relationship between big-business and politics, exposed beautifully in this film with an insight into the Florida Sugar Industry.

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All sorts of fascinating people turn up, ranging in tone from “pantomime villain” to “repeatedly apologetic”. People like International Arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi - "There is no equality in life. Forget about it" and Chuck Collins, heir to the Oscar Meyer billions, who rejected his fortune to live a very simple and austere existence.

About 38 minutes in we meet a real gem, Roy O. Martin - Multi-Millionaire President of the Louisiana-based Martin Lumber Company. Roy totally believes his wealth is preordained by God. On wealth, he states "God is never going to give you anything you can't handle"- clearly never having heard of the late 7th Marquis of Bristol's crack habit. We are allowed a glimpse around Mr Martin's hideous industrial lumber factory. As if working there was not hard enough, when we reach the staff-restaurant we are introduced to a large flat-screen television, showing non-stop biblical quotations. Clearly deluded, possibly insane, Roy puts America's wealth down to its "adherence to the ten commandments" he is a disturbing find, but I doubt he is unique.

Equally disturbing are the lengths that the wealthy people in the film go to in order to protect their prodigious assets. Throughout the film Jamie frequently tussles with his families' Financial Adviser, a man clearly concerned by the direction Jamie is going in, regularly pleading with him to desist.

The most interesting and moving part of the film for me is the final fifteen minutes. I won't ruin it, but it covers the New Orleans flood, where thousands of the poorest people of the richest country on earth were abandoned to their (ironically biblical) fate.

It is tempting to think of Jamie Johnson and say "poor little rich kid" but as rich as he continues to be, he now has the worst of both worlds. He's never going to be embraced by the poor, who will largely resent him and probably never see his work. Equally, he's also no longer going to be welcomed by his rich contemporaries, who will always wonder why he shone a light on a problem that isn't going away.