Inequality for All

Directed by Jacob Kornbluth

Opens at the Charles Oct. 4

If you get their rocks off being talked to about the struggles of the working class and yelling at Fox News show hosts, consider Inequality for All, a 90-minute documentary surveying the economic doldrums in which many Americans defined as middle class now find themselves.

U.S. productivity and GDP has risen since the end of World War II, but wages for American workers began flattening in the late 1970s. Executive pay, meanwhile, has skyrocketed. The prices of products have increased. And now that the middle class has exhausted the three mechanisms available to maintain their standard of living while pay compressed-two-income households, working longer hours, and borrowing against their homes-the U.S. is left with a chasm-like gap between its poorest citizens and the richest One Percent. Enter Occupy, the Tea Party, and bags of fecal matter, literal and figurative, being hurled through the air at protest rallies and during cable-news prime-time hours.

Those receptive to the G.O.P. may be inclined to employ genetic fallacy in calling Inequality for All a farce, as it's the product of Robert Reich: Huffington Post columnist, UC Berkeley professor, Democrat, and former secretary of labor during President Bill Clinton's first term. He plays the starring role in this production and presides over a swath of evidence he says makes rising inequality an existential threat to U.S. republicanism.

The camera follows Reich in moments candid and choreographed, from his Berkeley Wealth and Poverty class to a meeting with former Republican senator Alan Simpson. Interviews with people feeling a financial squeeze are also mixed in, which, here, thankfully, aren't flagrant emotional appeals. (Just one interviewee is brought to tears.) These more casual conversations-along with clips of Reich appearing on The Daily Show and other talk shows-are just enough to break up sometimes stultifying economic jargon.

And while the skeptical viewer might be leery of Reich's left-leaning sensibilities, Inequality for All strives for the type of nuanced examination television talking heads flee from behind shouts of "Class warfare!" and "Socialism!" and righteous claims about personal responsibility. As if the married, working mother Deborah Frias, one of several characters interspersed among charts, graphs, and historical considerations, is living it up instead of stashing whatever little money there is after rent, utilities, groceries, school supplies, car insurance, and physicians' bills into a savings account or a fund to pay for her daughter's future college education. After her monthly expenses total up-just over $3,000-she's left with about $100 in her checking account.

If there's a bogey to blame, it appears to be a political class, liberal and conservative, more beholden to corporate lobbyists than laborers. How to right the ship? Reich hints at his prescribed solutions: greater government investment in college education, more support for labor unions, and a higher marginal tax rate for wealthy Americans. In his telling, however, the forecast is bleak for poor sods who must earn money rather than make it. Welcome, welcome all, to America the banana republic.