The unaffordably wealthy

WEALTH / A look at the global patterns of modern kleptocracy and extractivism, reimagining the building blocks of our societies along the way.
Director: Fredrik Gertten
Producer: WG Film AB
Country: Sweden

Premiered at CPH:DOX, Breaking Social is a stunning, multi-dimensional, global overview of the current social situation that creates a wide-ranging picture of the problems of our time. Veteran filmmaker Fredrik Gertten (Bananas!, Bikes vs Cars, Push) designs the next revealing depiction of mechanisms fueling everyday life in many places by asking about principles of democracy and rules guiding our actions.

Breaking Social Fredrik Gertten
Breaking Social, a film by Fredrik Gertten

Various stags of development

Covering Malta, Chile, and the USA, Breaking Social delineates behind-the-scenes, shadowy political, economic, and social reality in three different continents, put in a frame of the commentary by Rutger Bregman, the Dutch historian. The lenses are turned onto ordinary people, their attitudes, and reasons for awakening into active participation in social actions. Although the places are distant from each other and supposedly different, by seeing them side by side, we can observe the results of the same shady politics played out on an international sphere, just at various stages of development.

The European case – Malta – features the social consequences of the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who specialises in uncovering corruption within the leading political circles. She was killed a few meters from her home in October 2017. Her tragic death brought shock and anger that gave people the impulse to organise protests and continue her investigative work focusing on the mainstream of political life. Moreover, it led them to the connections between political parties and international corporations specialising in election mongering using digital technologies (#Cambridge Analytica#) and – as a part of repayment – securing their participation in big public industrial projects promoted by the politicians after coming to power. Cambridge Analytica’s former employee, based in the UK, introduces some details of such collaboration and its rules.

The social reality in an epicentre of the global financial circles and also the main ground for Cambridge Analytica alike – the US – is, in turn, deeply alarming and grim. Instead of usual, fiction-like pictures, we see the teachers struggle to pay for their basic needs as their remuneration is too low. Working people in America have to have two or even three jobs to make ends meet and pay higher taxes than their billionaire employers. The number of homeless on the streets is soaring, exceeding the highest historical levels. Unions are – traditionally – blocked and discouraged, but they still are the only possibility of attaining basic human working conditions, like cooling systems at work in high temperatures. Ordinary people are struggling with every fundamental aspect of their lives, while a tiny group of individuals, not paying taxes, but earning more than the annual budgets of many countries, spend billions of dollars on their attempts to go into space. The attempts, in most cases, are unsuccessful, and a few are, give us not too expressive reflections of their billionaire participants on the «beautiful view from up there.»

Working people in America have to have two or even three jobs to make ends meet and pay higher taxes than their billionaire employers.


The problem is that these funds, earned primarily on the extraction of natural resources and human work, should be – at least partly – returned to the communities they come from to keep them afloat. However, the extraction of the last decades is relentless and harsh, not showing any sign of yielding or allowing regeneration. Sarah Chayes, a writer living in West Virginia, who used to research corruption in Afghanistan, among others, shows her surroundings – the breathtakingly beautiful natural interior of North America – ruined by the futile search for natural resources. The secluded towns and places are painful leftovers of human greed and shortsightedness, resulting in ghost-like landscapes bringing to mind a horror rather than an uplifting image of the country where dreams come true.

The similar formerly abundant places turned into deserts by mining, and exhaustive exploitation is a dire picture in Chile. Decades of the highest social inequality among all the developing countries caused deep frustration and a series of national social protests in 2019. It started with a rise in ticket prices on public transport and manifestations of students but gradually spiralled out to other social groups: Mothers, grandparents, and previously politically inactive artists. The reaction of the rich in power was brutal and cruel, including police forces, rapes, and unexplained disappearances of the protesters, especially women. But the public won, and the government backed off, giving forth a social process of drafting a new constitution and the country’s new political order.

Breaking Social Fredrik Gertten
Breaking Social, a film by Fredrik Gertten

Burden of dignity

As Rutger Bregman points out – we have been taught that if we work hard and well, we will be rewarded. The social reality of the XXIst century is, however, starkly different. More and more people in a rising number of countries are impoverished and unable to live in dignity, despite long hours spent on tough and exhausting work. Yet, their burden is made heavier by charging them with more and more costs of public spending that should be covered by the ones monopolising earnings by avoiding paying taxes and taking advantage of the public incentives. The global rich, «the citizens of the world», buying many passports, skip from one country to another, from one continent to another, whenever they are forced to take responsibility somewhere. In 2018, the OXFAM report on global wealth estimated that 95% of global financial resources are in the hands of just 20% of people, while 80% of the world population disposes of just 5% of the wealth. Since the pandemic, these inequalities have deepened even further, as numerous sociologists reveal these days. It makes the film’s central question: «Can we afford the rich?» even more relevant and worthy of analysis.

Breaking Social screens its World Premiere in competitoon for CPH:DOX F:ACT Award

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Aleksandra Biernacka
Aleksandra Biernacka
Anthropologist and sociologist of culture. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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