4 stars
There was a time when Michael Moore was the first word in feature documentaries that challenged the establishment.
Fahrenheit 9/11 was his zenith, a scintillating account of one man's reaction to America's darkest hour: who can forget that image of George Bush reading to kindergarten kids while New York burned? Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story went on to chart his anger with the carnage wrought by untamed capitalism, and trickle-down economics in particular. That was 2009 in the fires immediately following the GFC.

Shuffle forward six years and the block's most recently outraged kid is actor-comedian turned activist Russell Brand (Forgetting Sarah Marshall / Despicable Me). He's teamed up with director Michael Winterbottom (Road To Guantanamo / The Trip) to attack the capitalist structure which has placed 48% of global wealth in the hands of 1% of the population. Worse, it's a figure that's rising (more wealth into fewer hands). Oxfam says they’ll top 50% this time next year: that 1% will own more than the rest of us put together. As Brand points out at the start, this isn't anything you don't already know. But it doesn't have to be that way, the rich don't have to get richer. In fact, it’s time they got poorer.

What might surprise you is there had been a period of relative equity. Somewhere between the 1930's and the 1970's, the social structure was geared, more or less, in favour of society. Back then, beloved Cadbury built houses and infrastructure to support the well being of their workers. Today it's owned by Kraft and has merged with Vegemite in one of the most disgusting branding exercises known to man. But I digress. Mr Brand argues the world was turned upside down when Reagan and Thatcher colluded to embrace the 'lunatic fringe' as expressed by sidelined economist Milton Friedman. Trickle-down was their mantra, an unworkable theory which simply made rich people richer and had the added benefit of wrestling the welfare state to its knees; neo-con nirvana.

It was a perfect vehicle to increase disparity, and increase it did. In the space of only thirty years, the difference between the average wage and the wage of the average corporate leader has risen 100 fold. Where they once earned 20 times what they paid their staff, it now sits around 300 times. What a captain of industry earns in a year, it will take the guy cleaning his windows a lifetime. Is this fair asks Brand? No reasonable person could answer yes.

Come the GFC, there was only one way this could go. Thousands were arrested during London's riots, the majority punished heavily for looting high street stores, and perhaps with good cause. What of bankers he asks? People whose unconscionable actions drove millions of people out of work and out of their homes while effectively looting the public purse to the tune of billions of pounds? Well, to date none have been charged much less arrested or jailed. Most got a bonus. As more and more leaders call for smaller government and less tax, consider that the top tax rate in the 1960's – a golden age of prosperity – was 95%. How quickly the insanity of the world we tolerate crystallises.

As with Michael Moore, it's easy for Brand to get a rise from the outraged audience, especially when few (none?) of us are in that 1%. Like Moore, Brand also engages with Bob and Sheila Average, and the same kind of headline baiting stunts. But what makes Brand so tangible, so effortlessly watchable, is not only his very common touch and his smarts, but his steely sense of humour. He knows we know his formidable income puts him in the same camp as his tax-haven loving colleagues. He jokes that change must come swiftly, but only for the other guys :)

That knowingness and that willingness to mount a strident campaign for fairness is what makes The Emperor’s New Clothes so powerful. There’s no argument that fighting for a fairer world is the right thing to do. “Things can change. Things do change.” When the audience chimes in with a rowdy round of applause during the film, we know we're in extraordinary company.


Previewed at Event Cinemas, George St, Sydney, on 9 June 2015


Presented by Russell Brand

Michael Winterbottom

Russell Brand
Michael Winterbottom

UK / USA / France


101 minutes

June 11, 2015
The Emperor's New Clothes (2015) on IMDb