Movie Review: The One Percent, a Documentary

the one percent documentaryWant to hear about a documentary depicting wealth, money and business fame … ??

The One Percent

Last night I watched The One Percent, a documentary filmed by Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune.

The One Percent — as the title implies — focuses on income disparity between the rich and poor in the United States. I was drawn to the documentary when I noticed that it came out in 2006, long before the financial crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement began.

“If Johnson was talking about ‘one percent’ back in 2006, he must have been at the forefront of the movement,” I thought. “Let’s see what this is documentary is all about.”


This documentary is based on an important question: Is income disparity in the U.S. a problem? Or is there nothing wrong with income disparity as long as the bottom 50 percent have a better quality of life? What’s more important: relative poverty or absolute poverty?

These are important questions, and they deserve to be treated with intellectual rigor. Unfortunately, Johnson’s documentary lacks the complexity, nuance and critical thought that these issues deserve.

The movie is pure punditry. The quotes are cherry-picked to cast the wealthy in the worst possible light. Johnson seems to be more interested in reinforcing his audiences’ ideas than he is in authentically exploring a complex issue.

Punditry, of course, exists on both sides of the fence. Regardless of which “side” it supports (as if complex economic theories could be boiled down to two sides), punditry over-simplifies the topics that affect our lives. Economics cannot be reduced to chants and cliches.

Johnson, for example, has managed to create an entire documentary framing “rich vs. poor” without ever asking the question, “where does money come from?” He seems to believe that money falls from the sky into the laps of a privileged few.

That perspective comes from his own experience — as heir the Johnson & Johnson fortune, a circumstance of birth brought him unimaginable wealth — but his own good fortune does not sufficiently explain how the laws of competition, supply, demand, wages, job creation and incentives govern our society.

Johnson has access to some of the world’s most intriguing interview subjects: Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman, former Presidential candidate Steve Forbes, and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich. He had the opportunity to pose thought-provoking questions that could lead to insightful commentary. But in every conversation, Johnson seems more interested in advocating his own arguments than in listening to his interview subjects’ answers.

This documentary panders to class warfare. Income disparity is an important issue that merits rational discussion and critical thought. Unfortunately, Johnson’s movie deprives this issue of the analysis it deserves.

Thanks to Great 8 for today’s photo.


  1. says

    You shouldn’t feel bad for liking chick lit. While it may not necessarily appeal to your audience here, there’s nothing wrong with it. I say bravo for finding away to mix your pleasure with “work” and still find interesting things to review.

    • says

      Haha yeah I agree. Those books are usually pretty quick reads, too. As for your review – thanks for the insight. I like documentaries on occasion (they are a fast way to learn something interesting). But I think I’ll probably skip this one.

  2. says

    I watched this! I agree…when it ended I felt like he could have done so much more with it. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it. Even if it was guiltily. Highlights for me: the Oscar Meyer heir that gave up his fortune in order to live a normal life and the man at the end that related that although his family didn’t have money, they had made him a rich man because they had taught him to, “love people for what they are, not for what you want them to be.” Or something to that effect.

  3. says

    Is this film available online somewhere? I would like to watch it, but have limited options in finding it here in Thailand.

    Regarding your question vis a vis relative vs absolute poverty, I would have to say the focus should be on absolute poverty. The focus on relative poverty is exactly what turns me off in the recent protests. Those complaining (for the most part) are very well off by world standards and their perception of what everyone deserves is skewed by their lack of understanding of what true poverty is.

  4. says

    Sounds interesting…although admittedly i’m not a fan of extremely biased, spun content a la Michael Moore. What’s most interesting here to me is that the movie is from 2006, during a time of prospertiy and at the hieght of the bubble. I guess the income gap will always be there, through good times and bad.

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