American Experience (February 2018)
An exploration of late 1800s America, its transformation into a global industrial powerhouse, and the economic disparity that resulted.
By the end of the 19th century, approximately 4000 American families owned as much as the remaining 11.5 million – the first instance of the economic inequality of the 1%. The extravagance and resources of families like the Carnegies, Morgans, and the Vanderbilts were emblematic of the titular Gilded Age, but, as pointed out by historian Nell Irvin Painter in Colt’s film, “gilded” denotes a shiny covering over something raw beneath – in this case an embrace of capitalism’s profits at the expense of the poor and working class. Following the conventional format of the PBS series, Colt profiles several of the major players of the period, such as Andrew Carnegie and JP Morgan, even-handedly demonstrating both the virtues and failings of these captains of industry, while also putting attention on some who would fight for the common citizen, notably Mary Elizabeth Lease and the Populist Party, socialist organizers, and unions. Ultimately – and sadly – more topical than ever, the project questions whether America’s embrace of the unrealistic, ever-increasing profit motive has resulted in our government protecting and serving capitalism and those it makes wealthy, or the ordinary people who often suffer at its cutthroat pursuit.