‘Generation Wealth’ Finds Hope Outside of the Corrupted American Dream

Generation Wealth poster

In 1988, John Carpenter made “They Live,” a science fiction horror film about a drifter who discovers the ruling class are actually aliens who have managed to conceal their existence and manipulate the human race into spending money and to “obey” them through subliminal messages in mass media. Years later, when Carpenter was attending a screening at the Egyptian Theatre, he described “They Live” as being his response to his horror at the Ronald Reagan years and his distaste at the increased commercialization of politics and popular culture in the 1980’s. When I was at a screening of “Big Trouble in Little China,” and I got to ask Carpenter the following question:

“You have said ‘They Live’ was your response to your horror at the Reagan years. With George W. Bush currently wreaking havoc around the globe, don’t you think this is the perfect time for a sequel?”

Carpenter’s response stays with me to this day:

“The 80’s never left us.”

Looking back, he was absolutely right. While I am a child of the 80’s and have a great love for that decade, it marked the start of America becoming an infinitely greedy nation as we strove to become very rich, deficits began to explode, and politicians began selling us on trickle down economics which promised that tax cuts on the rich would benefit the middle and lower classes. This proved to be a big lie, and yet politicians still try to sell Americans on it.

All of this went through my head as I watched Lauren Greenfield’s “Generation Wealth.” This documentary comes to us in 2018, and it proves once again how the 80’s still live on as we watch individuals try to become wealthy or at least gain the appearance of being rich. What results is a look at how the American Dream has been corrupted, the cost of greed, and the chance for redemption.

Greenfield is an acclaimed photographer and filmmaker, and “Generation Wealth” starts off with her narrating how through her 25 years of work, she discovers her work has pointed to one uniting phenomenon: wealth culture. From there, she investigates the various pathologies which created the richest society in the world, and she interviews several people who look to increase their bank accounts or change the way they look to where society will view them as sexy.

We meet Florian Homm, a former hedge-fund manager who at one time had a net worth of $800 million and ended up fleeing the United States to avoid getting arrested by the FBI. Watching him sit back on a couch while smoking a cigar with glee makes him look the modern-day version of Tony Montana from “Scarface.” Homm is never shy about just how much he loves money, and he laughingly admits how Harvard Business School didn’t train him to be an ethical businessman but instead to be “fine-tuned to rule the world.”

We also get introduced to Cathy, a bus driver from Virginia who travels to Brazil to get extensive plastic surgery which she charges to a credit card, the successful porn star Kacey who gained notoriety after Charlie Sheen paid her $30,000 for a days long party and drug binge, a young beauty queen who looks like a combination of Honey Boo Boo and JonBenet Ramsey, and former rapper Cliff (G-Mo) who we first celebrating the hip-hop version of the American Dream. They all want the best-looking bodies as well as all the money in the world, but as Greenfield says at one point, those who have everything never feel like they have enough.

I found myself getting sickened by the subjects Greenfield photographed and interviewed as it felt they were doing more damage to themselves than good to where they appeared, if not soulless, very empty on the inside. It proved to be a relief when someone like Chris Hedges shows up to put some much-needed perspective on what we are seeing as he compares America’s obsession with wealth to the end of Rome. At one point he even says, “Societies accrue the most wealth as they face death.” Can America be close to suffering the same fate? It certainly feels like it.

Greenfield doesn’t break new ground with “Generation Wealth” as Michael Moore already compared Rome’s fall with America in “Capitalism: A Love Story,” and “The Big Short” was an entertaining and sobering look at the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Do we need to go through how greed has wrecked America in yet another movie? Oh yes, we do! This country threatens to make the same mistakes yet again as politicians still insist on selling its citizens on trickle-down economics.

One key character from the 1980’s whom Greenfield highlights is Gordon Gekko, the fictional and unscrupulous corporate raider Michael Douglas played in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.” But while Stone intended for “Wall Street” to be a cautionary tale about the downside of unchecked greed, Gekko proved to be such a charismatic character to where he became a huge inspiration for those desperate to make it big on Wall Street. It didn’t matter how Gekko set a terrible example for them, these wannabes still looked up to him, and there is a good deal of him in many of the people Greenfield interviews here.

Greenfield to her credit she never judges any of the people featured here. She presents their stories objectively and never tries to manipulate us into thinking about them in one way or another. Whether you are intrigued or repulsed by the things they do, there is a sense of empathy I had for them as they become more and more human as the documentary reaches its final act.

When it comes to “Generation Wealth’s” final act, we see the results and repercussions of the actions everyone has made as they reach a plateau in their quest for money. Greenfield aligns their journey with the catastrophic financial crash of 2008 which left much damage in its wake. Seeing these people on the other side of it has them finding something absolutely priceless while others find tragedy and financial ruin. This proves to be both inspiring and devastating all at the same time.

“Generation Wealth” does lose some of its focus as Greenfield awkwardly inserts herself into her documentary. Is she also interested in being rich and wealthy? Is she well off thanks to her photography? It’s hard to say what she is saying about herself, but it does lead to some very amusing moments as one of her sons admits he knows the name of each Kardashian but not those of his neighbors, and her other little boy ends up inserting a sign in front of her camera as she films everything and anything. I don’t want to spoil the moment for you as it had me laughing endlessly.

Watching “Generation Wealth” kind of reminded of when I first saw “Doc Hollywood” which starred Michael J. Fox as a doctor intent on making tons of money as a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, and who later finds a more meaningful life for himself in Grady, South Carolina. But that was a fictional movie, and this one deals with real life, and I came out of it with more hope for the human race than when I went in. This documentary also shows how life is about the journey rather than the final destination. While I wanted to sit some of these characters down and force them to pay close attention to the lyrics of Digital Underground’s “No Nose Job,” it is worth watching their journey as, like them, we come to see what matters most in life.

With that, I leave you with the words Harold Perrineau uttered as Augustus Hill on the HBO series “Oz:”

“We think we know what we need. We spend our time figuring out how to get what we want, who can help us, who’s in the way. We make our moves and sometimes we get lucky. We get exactly what we want. And life gets worse. Simple truth #22, be careful what you wish for, brother. Be very, very careful.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Roddy Piper Discusses the Fight Scene in ‘They Live’

They Live Roddy and Keith

While at New Beverly Cinema for a screening of “They Live” on June 10, 2012, Roddy Piper spent some time talking about how he, director John Carpenter and co-star Keith David staged the alley fight in the movie. At five and a half minutes, it remains one of the longest fight scenes in cinema history.

Piper said that while Carpenter asked him many questions in preparation for “They Live,” the director also made him watch “The Quiet Man” which starred John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. Aside from its beautiful photography of the Irish countryside, the movie also had one of the longest fight scenes ever filmed. Carpenter was determined to make an even longer fight scene, and to that, Piper said, “Okey dokey.”

Another reason Carpenter asked him so many questions, Piper said, was because “he was trying to figure out whom to put with me.” Keith David ended up being his co-star, and Piper described him as a “220-pound dancer” and of how “he is like Mike Tyson and doesn’t know it.” He also went on to describe David as a “great and wonderful man” and that he “kept laughing at all my mistakes.”

Piper did have a hand in choreographing the fight, and much of the rehearsal between him and David took place in Carpenter’s backyard. He taught David how to throw and take a punch, but knowing how punches on camera can appear faked, Piper eventually told him:

“Listen Keith, just hit me. From here and down (pointing to below his neck and above his waist) just hit me and go as far as you can.”

Piper said David had no problem doing that.

In filming the fight, Piper said he and David worked on three sections of it, and that they took it as far as they could. The day after that, they worked on the close ups for the scene. Rumor has it that it took three weeks of rehearsal to get the choreography of the fight just right. The audience was shocked however to hear that, even with the fight lasting almost six minutes, five minutes were actually taken out of it.

“They Live” also inspired a parody on “South Park” in which Timmy and Jimmy duke it out in a shot-for-shot remake of Piper and David’s fight. Upon learning this particular “South Park” episode featured “little crippled kids” fighting, Piper said he felt so bad about it and refused to watch it for about ten years. What changed his attitude regarding the episode was when he was at an autograph convention a few years ago:

“There was a beautiful little kid in a wheelchair that came up and told me about it, and he was laughing his ass off! Then I watched it and, oh baby Jesus put the hat on, one got hit in the crouch and another with a wheelchair! So you know if he likes it then I like it too! I just didn’t want to offend him.”

Piper did talk about how “They Live” is on the verge of being remade, and this did not please any fans in the sold-out audience at New Beverly Cinema. Apparently the remake will not have a fight scene in it. While some were disappointed to hear this, it’s probably just as well. After watching Piper and David pummel each other with such raw power, it seems impossible to top what they did today.

They Live movie poster

Roddy Piper Revisits John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’ at New Beverly Cinema

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It was a huge shock to hear of the sudden passing of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper who died on July 31, 2015 from a heart attack at the age of 61. Many of us remember him from his wrestling days with the World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) where he battled Hulk Hogan and Mr. T in the ring, and for also making Cyndi Lauper’s life (in her music videos anyway) a living hell.

But for me, I’m always going to remember him best for his performance in John Carpenter’s “They Live” in which he played a nameless drifter who discovers that the earth has been taken over by aliens disguised as rich people. While he may have seemed an unusual choice for a movie role, Carpenter said he cast Piper because he had life written all over his face, and that’s a quality that not enough people in Hollywood pay attention to these days.

The following is an article I wrote after I attended a special screening of one of Carpenter’s best movies.

They Live movie poster

Former wrestler and actor Roddy Piper visited New Beverly Cinema on June 10, 2012 to talk about his role in John Carpenter’s “They Live.” Once the film ended, Piper made his way to the front and leapt onstage and yelled out for all to hear:

“I HAVE COME HERE TO CHEW BUBBLE GUM AND KICK ASS!!! AND I AM ALL OUT OF BUBBLE GUM!!!”

This screening was put together by the horror convention Days of The Dead, and moderating the Q&A was Brian W. Collins from the website Horror Movie a Day. During the time he spent with the audience, Piper looked so incredibly happy to be there.

When Brian asked him how he got cast in “They Live,” Piper said he was doing Wrestlemania III and got asked out to dinner by Carpenter afterwards. Piper had, as he said, “been on the road since he was 15 years old,” and he admitted to the audience he “had no idea of who John Carpenter was.” But once he realized he was a movie director offering him the lead role in a motion picture, Piper was eager to work with him.

In talking about filming the destruction of the shantytown, Piper pointed out how many people in that scene were actually homeless and not your average Hollywood extras. He also said the filmmakers had to pay two gangs off so that, when they left at night, the trailers would still be there in the morning. Piper said he also knew the president of each gang, and that really helped.

Then there was the discussion about the “bubble gum” line which Brian heard was improvised by Piper. Piper confirmed it was his idea and jokingly described it as “lame,” and it came about when Carpenter told him just before the cameras started rolling:

“Roddy, you know you’re going into a bank, you got bullets on, you got a shotgun, you got sunglasses. You gotta say something because you’re not robbing it. Action!”

Piper said the line, and then Carpenter yelled cut and immediately said, “Lunch!”

One audience member asked Piper if he did his own stunts in “They Live,” and he admitted he did all of them except for when Meg Foster pushes him out the window. Piper, however, also said if it was the last shot of the movie, then they would’ve let him do it. Speaking of Foster, he confessed he did indeed trip out over her eyes because they are so beautiful. Looking back, he marveled at how she brings you right in with those eyes.

We never do learn Piper’s character’s real name, and he is called Nada in the end credits which in Spanish means nothing. In describing Nada, Piper said, “You don’t know where he came from, you don’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing, you don’t know why he’s wearing a wedding ring. You know nothing about him.” Carpenter told him the thought behind this was if you don’t know anything about him, it makes him more intriguing to where you want to watch more.

Piper ended the evening by speaking profoundly about his role:

“Nada is you, he is every one of you, not blue collar or white collar. He’s you and that’s why you know nothing about him because it depends on if it’s you, then that’s what’s about him. He’s supposed to represent everybody, not just America, but everybody in the world. And that’s kind of why you as an audience fill in the nothing with whatever ethics and morals you’re fighting for at the time.”

Upon hearing of Piper’s death, Carpenter said he was “devastated to hear the news of my friend Roddy Piper’s passing today. He was a great wrestler, a masterful entertainer and a good friend.”

RIP “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.

Exclusive Interview with Barry Crimmins and Bobcat Goldthwait about ‘Call Me Lucky’

It was very sad to learn Barry Crimmins passed away on February 28, 2018 at the age of 64. Crimmins was diagnosed with cancer only a month earlier, but the disease spread through his body very rapidly. He was an American stand-up comedian, a political activist and satirist, a writer and a comedy club owner, and his comedy predated that of the late Bill Hicks. He brought the comedy scene in Boston to a new level of prominence after forming the city’s two clubs, The Ding Ho and Stitches. He has long since earned the respect of fellow comics like Bobcat Goldthwait, Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone, Kevin Meaney and many, many others who continue to sing his praises, But the thing is, I was only just getting to know him just a few years ago.

Call Me Lucky poster

Despite Crimmins having done so much work, many people today, myself included, had never heard of him before. This changed in 2015 with Goldthwait’s acclaimed documentary “Call Me Lucky” which chronicled Crimmins’ beginnings as a comic in New York to his work in the present as a political activist. The documentary also reveals how Crimmins was a victim of sexual abuse as a child, and we even see him revisit the scene of his abuse in an effort to come to terms with what he went through. For years, he was an anti-pedophilia activist, and he went out of his way to expose pedophiles on the internet in the 1990’s before turning his evidence over to the FBI. In 1995, he testified before Congress about the need to enforce child pornography laws more than ever before.

In 2017, Crimmins married Helen Lysen, a photographer and font designer, and she was with him when he passed away peacefully. She shared the news of his death and wrote, “He would want everyone to know that he cared deeply about mankind and wants you to carry on the good fight. Peace.” Indeed, his death is a real loss as we need voices like his as the political climate we are currently dealing with in America continues to grow more volatile as days go by.

I was fortunate to talk with Crimmins and Goldthwait while they were doing press for “Call Me Lucky” a few years ago. To this interview, I wore one of my “They Live” t-shirts as I figured Crimmins was a fan of John Carpenter’s 1988 cult classic which remains one of the most politically subversive movies ever made. It turns out he had not seen it, but Goldthwait certainly did, and I hope he got Crimmins to check it out before he passed away. I am certain he would have enjoyed it immensely.

They Live Obey t-shirt

Please check out my exclusive interview with Crimmins and Goldthwait above. “Call Me Lucky” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Rest in Peace Barry.

Alan Howarth Discusses Working on Film Scores with John Carpenter

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A screening of John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood brought out a number of guests such as Austin Stoker who played Lieutenant Ethan Bishop and Douglas Knapp who was the film’s director of photography. But the one guest I was really interested to hear from was Alan Howarth, the composer and sound designer who collaborated with Carpenter on a number of his film scores from “Escape From New York” to “They Live.” Howarth even took the time to do a live performance of his and Carpenter’s music, something I never thought I would ever see in my lifetime.

During the Q&A, Howarth talked about how he came to work with Carpenter, their process for scoring his films and his favorite film scores of the ones they worked on together. Howarth wasn’t actually on board for the original “Assault on Precinct 13” though he did work on a remastered version of the soundtrack for it and “Dark Star” for BuySoundtrax.com. It wasn’t until he worked on his first big film when he became inadvertently acquainted with Carpenter.

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“I came on board at ‘Escape from New York,’ and that was kind of happenstance because my very first movie, less than a year earlier, was ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture,’” Howarth said. “I had come on as the sound designer and created the sounds of the Enterprise like the warp drive and the transporters and stuff like that. The picture editor from that movie, Todd Ramsay, his next assignment was ‘Escape from New York,’ so I had slipped him some cassettes and he knew I was a musician. John had worked with another fellow on ‘Halloween,’ Dan Wyman, and there was some change up there, and so literally the guy comes over to my little, rented house in Glendale and set up in my dining room. It was nothing formal. I sat down and I played him a few things and he goes, ‘okay, let’s do it.’ That was it.”

“John always wanted somebody who knew about the technology,” Howarth continued. “In fact, a couple of times I tried to explain to him how it worked and he was all, ‘I don’t want to know that. It’s your job to make it work, make it in tune, and when I push down the note the red light is on.’ So that’s where I started, but he’s a collaborative person. I love working with people. I’m from the bands and rock & roll. I was one of those people. So, it was really great and my first film score was ‘Escape from New York.’”

escape-from-new-york-soundtrack

From there, the two of them worked on several projects all the way to “They Live.” As he continued discussing the work he did with Carpenter, we came to discover he played a larger part in Carpenter’s film scores than we ever realized.

“Next, he went off to do ‘The Thing’ and they wanted to make ‘Halloween II,’ so again John said, ‘I’m going to be busy. You’re going to have to do Halloween.’ Same thing, so I did ‘Halloween II’ and I used his original ‘Halloween’ music, overdubbed it and created new stuff.”

 

After “They Live,” they seemed to part ways for reasons Howarth never explained, but it gave him the confidence to start scoring films on his own. Of course, he was still eager to get Carpenter’s blessing when it came to a franchise the director never planned to start.

“I found out they were going to do ‘Halloween 4’ and I said to John, ‘they asked me to do this and you’re my buddy and I want to do something with this.’ He said sure, so I wound up doing ‘Halloween 4, 5 and 6’ and that really launched me as a composer which is what I love to do the most, and as we are in a world of economic stasis, I had to do it all by myself. As you see, this is my studio right here. It’s all down to a laptop and a guitar and some recorders when it used to be a million dollars’ worth of stuff. Not that that stuff isn’t valuable, but you can do without it now,” Howarth said.

 

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One audience member asked which of the scores he did with Carpenter is his favorite, and the answer was a little bit of a surprise.

“I think ‘Halloween III’ because it was really an artistic departure for both of us, and ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ is the most produced and has the widest range,” said Howarth. “We had rock and roll and scary things and chases and this whole Asian influence, so it was really a broad scope of things. That’s one of my favorites.”

halloween-iii-soundtrack

Like many in the audience, I was eager to hear how Howarth and Carpenter would go about working on a score. Did they start working on it before shooting began? Did they work on it after shooting was finished? Did they think about the music while making the film? We hear how composers spend so much time preparing the perfect score for a movie, but Howarth made his process with Carpenter sound quite simple.

“It’s all one big jam. It’s improvised,” Howarth said. “Sometimes he would come in with a theme in mind. I’d set up the piano before he came over and started something. A lot of it we just made up on the spot. In fact, I introduced him, because I’m a technical person, to the synchronization between a videotape and a tape recorder. It almost seems like we were the first to do it. Before that, everything was done with a stopwatch. So, you would make a cue that was three minutes long and kind of set a tempo, and then you would go back and literally copy it on a Moviola and fool around with the scene.”

“This was the first time you could watch the movie and play at the same time, so he referred to that as the electronic coloring book which made it even easier to improvise,” Howarth continued. “Through that whole period we also benefited from the evolution of electronic music instruments, so from analog synthesizers and a 24-track machine to midi and digital sequencers, these scores had a new installation in the progress of musical instruments, so it’s almost a chronology or a music lesson in the gear.”

Another audience member asked Howarth how long he and Carpenter would jam until they found something they really liked. His answer illustrates how fast these two worked on their music.

“We did a cue a day,” Howarth said. “One quote I always get from John, and it’s just really true, he said, ‘Alan if you want to be a director you only need two important words, yes and no. Just be very decisive. Even if you say no today or yes today and tomorrow, you change your mind. You got twenty or thirty people that are taking direction, and you don’t want to leave them in a lurch, so it’s better to just be decisive.’ So, it was a couple of times we did something and came back and said that wasn’t working, but it wasn’t very often.”

Having worked in movies and music all these years, Howarth clearly has a wide knowledge of musical instruments and electronics. When asked what he would consider as the go to synthesizer, Howarth’s answer shed some light on how far musical technology has come over the years.

“I chose all the gear and I arrived at being a fan of the Prophet 5,” Howarth said. “It sounded good, but the other reason was that it was the first programmable synthesizer. Prior to that, you had to literally make little diagrams of where all the knobs and switches were to get back to the same sound, so this was the first time you could do something and save it. That really moved things forward a lot, and I brought in the programmables and the sequencers.”

One big question many had about the music Carpenter and Howarth worked on was the score to Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing.” This was Carpenter’s first big studio movie, and it allowed him to work with his all-time favorite composer Ennio Morricone. However, when you listen to the score, some it sounds like it was done by Carpenter and Howarth, and this is especially the case with the movie’s main theme. Howarth went into detail about who really composed the score to “The Thing.”

“They (Carpenter and Morricone) took a meeting, and he (Morricone) saw a little bit of the footage and he scored his score,” Howarth said. “He comes back and, of course, how does John talk to his hero about what just went down and where he wants to go? And there’s a translation issue between English and Italian and all this other stuff. So John played the stuff we did for ‘Escape from New York’ and he says, ‘Can you do something like this?’ Ennio goes back for a second pass now with keyboards, and that’s where ‘The Thing’s’ theme came from. So it’s Ennio Morricone doing John Carpenter really. At the very end after all that, there was one more pass on about four or five cues where John came over for just an afternoon and we did some cues that kind of sound like ‘Christine’ that you can tell is basically our synth stuff. So basically, it took three scoring passes on the show to get it.”

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It was a real treat to have Alan Howarth talk about his musical collaboration with John Carpenter. The film scores they worked on are among my favorites of all time, and I never get sick of listening to them. Howarth continues to work as a film composer, and his more recent credits include scores for “Backstabbed,” “The Dentist” and “House at the End of the Drive.” Here’s hoping we get to hear more scores from him in the near future.