Watching Inequality For All, it becomes clear that economist, former Secretary Of Labor, and frequent political commentator Robert Reich would make for a fascinating documentary subject, and just as clear that Inequality For All isn’t the film to do him justice, no matter how thoroughly he endorses it. An advocacy doc constructed to make a clear political point first and function as a film a distant second, Inequality For All serves as an extension of Reich’s thoughts on the calamitous effects of income inequality in the United States—a situation in which, by Reich’s calculations, 400 people now hold more than 50 percent of the country’s wealth.
That’s a stunning statistic in a film filled with them, and Reich makes a credible case for why it’s a problem, without sounding like he’s declaring class welfare. It isn’t that the rich have so much money, it’s that they don’t spend the money, and they pay taxes at such a low rate that they become a drag on the economy. To make his case, Reich talks to a sympathetic billionaire and to a laborer who’s come to doubt the usefulness of unions, but Inequality For All rarely strays from any detail removed from supporting, and repeating, its central thesis. Building an argument point by point and illustrating it with examples, the film doesn’t just feel like a lecture: At times, it is a lecture, with footage taken directly from one of Reich’s classes at Berkeley. As such, it’s enlightening and alarming, but also a skim over the surface of a complex issue that often feels like a long advertisement for the “To find out more…” URL shown just before the credits.
That’s a shame, because incorporating those same points into a profile of the charismatic Reich might have made them more effectively, or at least felt less like a glossy version of one of Reich’s books. A self-deprecating but insistent presence, the 4-foot-11-inches Reich makes a frequent joke of his height—even letting it serve as a punchline for a Conan O’Brien bit—but he’s also clearly learned to use it, and his easy wit, to disarm others. He doesn’t look or sound like a threat to the status quo, but he doesn’t back down from a fight, either, continually lobbying for an increase in the minimum wage, and tax reform to narrow the gap he finds so alarming. In one stretch, director Jacob Kornbluth lets Reich make a connection between his childhood experiences as a victim of bullying, and his grown-up need to stick up for the little guy. It’s an easy bit of psychoanalysis that could serve as a jumping-off point for a richer look at the man behind the ideas. Instead, Inequality For All repackages his ideas for movie audiences. While it’s a persuasive bit of argument, filled out with charts and graphs and delivered convincingly by an expert in the field, it’s too often that and nothing more.