Set in the world of contemporary art dealing, The Price of Everything tells a tale by turns amusing and chilling. What happens when art moves from an object of appreciation to a commodity fetish, when people with more money than sense swoop in and insure that great works will never see the light of day, and remain trapped on the wall of a New York penthouse? What happens when artists themselves abandon the creative impulses that once drove their work and devote themselves to mass producing dreck? What, indeed, happens when a film director has a great story on his hands – one with anger-inducing implications for all of society – but cannot avoid the temptation to make his film as slick as every other investigative journalism doc?
“The art market is a bubble. Let’s keep it floating,” admits one interview subject in the film. Just how much of a bubble might surprise the casual viewer, with contemporary works routinely selling for tens of millions of dollars. Worse, these works often go for outlandish prices at resale auctions, meaning that the artists themselves get none of the money. This has led to a futures market, with hedge fund managers and other big shots snapping up artwork on the cheap, then reaping huge profits once artists take off. This has led to an art economy ruled by money, where some artists make it big and others swing and miss, with no discernible logic behind the divisions.
Director Nathaniel Kahn brings together a wide variety of subjects to portray all corners of this environment: a high rolling art collector, several art dealers, an auction house higher up, and of course artists themselves, representing a range of success and career stages. Through these sources Kahn builds a scathing case against the art market as it currently stands, a cutthroat but ultimately vapid world where status has replaced taste as the mark of value. One of the film’s coups is gaining access to the studio of a man who has come to symbolize all the wretched excess of this world: Jeff Koons, a man who was himself a Wall Street worker before turning to art as a career. As Koons talks to the camera about his inspiration, his swarm of assistants labor tirelessly behind him, creating copies of Renaissance masterworks that Koons will then attach a shiny metallic ball to and sell for millions.
The film collects plenty of these absurd moments to laugh (or cry) over, but it never really digs below the surface – the tough questions tend to get brushed aside by the subjects, and Kahn does not press them for answers. Everything on display has been pruned for ease of digestion, from the straightforward visuals to the snappy editing. At my screening, Kahn introduced his own film, and compared it to Robert Altman’s Nashville in its use of many characters whose lives intersect at surprising moments. In Nashville, set in the world of country music, characters who seemingly have no contact with others in the film gradually converge through shared spaces and experiences, in ways that Altman makes seem organic and spontaneous. Unlike that masterpiece, however, The Price of Everything prepackages its connections for maximum impact, with every interviewee fitting like a replaceable part into a bigger machine. This becomes obvious in the film’s main contrast, between Koons and the ill-fated artist Larry Poons, whose very name hints at a doubling relationship. I would watch a whole film about Poons, a gruff but charismatic curmudgeon, but the film hems him in, forcing him to play the role of wronged outsider.
In one sense, these shortcomings don’t matter much in a film as entertaining and informative as The Price of Everything. On the other hand, it’s worth questioning the film itself in a way Kahn never gets around to. By his own admission, he’s an insider to this world, and he makes his film in a way that suggests a desire to reach a wide audience, by documentary standards at least. The fact that HBO bought the distribution rights for the film before it even premiered at Sundance tells you something – namely, that this is a documentary streamlined and slick enough to draw audiences who might be put off by more raw or experimental formal choices. There’s nothing wrong with making accessible documentaries, of course – I’m thankful for any film that draws people into the documentary world – but there’s an irony in the fact that a film that purports to explain how spontaneous aesthetic creation gave way to commercialized homogeneity looks and feels like a majority of other broadly pitched documentaries out there. In the end, The Price of Everything helps spread the very disease it attempts to diagnose.