The American Ruling Class
A dramatic, musical, documentary satire on class in America that attempts to answer the question 'Who rules America?'
Directed by John Kirby
Produced by Libby Handros
Hosted and Written by Lewis Lapham
Photographed by Mark Benjamin
Music by Qasim Naqvi and Lucas Revolutions
A production of The Press & The Public Project
The American Ruling Class is one of the most unusual films to be made in America in recent years -- both in terms of form and content. The form is a "dramatic-documentary-musical" and the content is our country's most taboo topic: class, power and privilege in our nominally democratic republic.
"The American Ruling Class k.o.'d me... an astonishing program." Studs Terkel
At bottom the film is a morality tale, the story of two Yale students (played by Harvard men) who seek their opportunities upon graduation. As the renowned essayist, author and longtime Harper's magazine editor Lewis Lapham conducts them through the corridors of power: Pentagon press briefings, the World Economic Forum, philanthropic foundations, Washington law firms, corporations, banks, the Council on Foreign Relations, and New York society dinners--our two representative graduates "one rich and the other not so rich" must struggle with their responsibilities in "a world collaterally damaged by the magic of money and the miracles of science." The real-life luminaries they meet on their journey become characters in a story about power, its responsibilities and abuses.
All the while "the Mighty Wurlitzer" plays on, a reference to the massive propaganda apparatus invented by the CIA's Frank Wisner, here used to signify the nocturnal philosophy of acquisition and imperial hubris which continually calls to the young men, the siren song of careerist myopia that was bred into their bones at school.
As we watch these two young men wend their way through what is only a slight fictionalization of their actual lives and choices, as we meet former Secretaries of State and Defense, directors of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations, the publisher of The New York Times, Kurt Vonnegut, Howard Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich, Robert Altman and a host of others, we have to ask along with Mr. Lapham: "To what end the genius of the Wall Street banks and the force of the Pentagon's colossal weapons? Where does America discover the wisdom to play with its wonderful toys?" The possible answers move beyond the empty distinction of party affiliation and into the heart of American Oligarchy itself. By film's end, the young men must decide: Should they seek to rule the world, or to save it?
Appearing on the screen are a range of leaders and commentators from across the political spectrum, among them: the late Robert B. Altman, James A. Baker III, Bill Bradley, Harold Brown, Hodding Carter III, William T. Coleman, Jr., Walter Cronkite, Barbara Ehrenreich, Vartan Gregorian, Doug Henwood, Mike Medavoy, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., John Perkins, (a.k.a., the economic hit-man) Samuel Peabody, Pete Seeger, Lawrence H. Summers, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., William Howard Taft IV, the late Kurt Vonnegut and Howard Zinn.
Grade Level: 10-12, College, Adult
US Release Date: 2007
Copyright Date: 2007
DVD ISBN: 1-59458-703-5
VHS ISBN: 1-59458-702-7
"The American Ruling Class is a crowning achievement of cinematic sociology and a most unique treatment of America's unspoken system of class inequality. Lapham's unprecedented access to the American ruling class, the ability to question these elites directly about how the American ruling class works, and the contrast between the netherworld of the dominating and the grim prospects of the dominated make this a must-see for those concerned about the future of our economy and social order. The ability to do all of this from the perspective of young college graduates is nothing short of remarkable."
Kevin T. Leicht, Professor and Director of the Institute for Inequality Studies, The University of Iowa, Author, Post-Industrial Peasants: The Illusion of Middle Class Prosperity
"A brilliant documentary/comedy, part Monty Python, part Michael Moore; brings to life the question: Can one join the power elite and yet work for the public interest? Well worth watching for the interviews with the likes of James Baker and Hodding Carter."
Joseph A. Soares, Professor of Sociology, Wake Forest University, Author, Power of Privilege: Yale and America's Elite Colleges
"The American Ruling Class is a funny, thought-provoking, and troubling film, one that will surely spark lively and critical discussions...[Its] complexity is a strength - it invites critical discussion, rather than proffering a forceful truth. The American Ruling Class is a fable, yet unlike most fables, it does not offer a clear moral for its tale, nor are good and evil easy to identify. This subtlety demands that the audience engage, and this film would certainly generate good conversation."
Sherry Lee Linkon, Professor of English and American Studies, Co-director, Center for Working-Class Studies, Youngstown State University
"Americans have long debated whether access to wealth and power in their society is open to all who seek success and are willing to work hard for it -- or if, instead, behind the façade of American democratic institutions a small, self-perpetuating elite exercises command over key decisions and national resources. In this musical 'mockumentary,' intellectual provocateur Lewis Lapham poses the question: 'Is there an American ruling class?'...A second question promptly surfaces: 'Can one do good by doing well, or are the interests of the American ruling class fundamentally at odds with the interests of the wider American public and of a majority the world's population?' Students contemplating important career decisions should find this film entertaining, unsettling, and enlightening."
Gary J. Kornblith, Professor of History, Oberlin College, Contributor, Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy
"I thoroughly enjoyed this quirky film about privilege in American society...Students are inclined to believe that money will be the route to happiness, a belief I hope they will question as they make decisions about their futures. I look forward to using this film as a provocative way to encourage students to think about this relationship."
Linda K. Trevino, Professor of Organizational Behavior, Cook Fellow in Business Ethics, Smeal College of Business, The Pennsylvania State University
"Wow, who'd have thought a stodgy old geezer like Lewis Lapham would produce such a hip and happening video! Guaranteed to stimulate hours of heated--but meaningful--classroom discussion about personal ethical choices, this is must viewing for undergraduate business students and younger MBA candidates."
James O'Toole, Daniels Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics, Daniels College of Business, University of Denver
"Throughout, Kirby approaches the topic in a light, entertaining manner that holds viewer interest...Recommended for audiences concerned with our future and how others see us."
"Offering unique insights into modern American class structure, The American Ruling Class is an informative, compelling, and strongly recommended examination of how an elite American oligarchy, an integrated political and economic superstructure perpetrates itself, how it recruits its initiates, how it stays in control of American governmental, educational, and commercial organizations, and how it influences the American 'body politic' to abide by the interests of the ruling class -- even when they run counter to the middle class, the working class, and the underclass...Dramatic, superbly produced and directed, thoughtful and thought provoking, [the film] offers a candor rarely glimpsed by ordinary citizens into who really calls the shots in America during these opening years and decades of the 21st Century."
The Midwest Book Review
"One should not mistake the musical treatment as a means to cushion the blows, or as a 'Mark Russell-esque' satire. Holding nothing back, this film goes on a rare and unrepentant crusade...A powerful work with a high recommendation. Highly Recommended."
Michael J. Coffta, Business Librarian, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, Educational Media Reviews Online
"Unlike many films that question the current class structure, [The American Ruling Class] does not ambush the powerful...Instead, men who believe that the world is fair as it is are given a chance to present their case...The filmmakers do not take the easy way out and offer simple answers...This will be a fantastic film for college classrooms...The wealth of unanswered questions should provoke intense discussions among students."
Katherine Walker, Virginia Commonwealth University, Anthropology Review Database
"Dances to a different tune than most documentaries...The American Ruling Class tackles a serious topic, but does so humorously without making light of the real problems. Sure to spark discussion, this is highly recommended."
"Thought provoking and worthy of discussion...An interesting theme to investigate in a class that treats social inequality or social class in depth."
"Provocative...Quirky--a kind of inverted reality show, in which characters are fictional but the circumstances are real...The two young men meet an astonishing number of actual members of the ruling class, most of whom deny the existence of their own kind."
New Labor Forum
Includes director and producer's commentary and scene selection.
Awards and Festivals
Special Mention, New York Loves Film, Tribeca Film Festival
Silver Chris Award, Columbus International Film and Video Festival
International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA)
American Sociological Association's Annual Meeting Film/Video Screenings
Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival
Woodstock Film Festival
Williamstown Film Festival
Two River Film Festival
Sedonna Film Festival
Rehoboth Film Festival
American Film Institute, Special Showing
Australian Film Festival
American Consulate, Paris, Special Screening
American Government & Politics
Labor and Work Issues
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"An amazingly good day for documentaries also sees the premier of John Kirby's astonishing documentary/drama/musical (yes, really) which also serves as a call to arms for everyone to think about how their actions will affect the future in which we live. Narrated and written by the wonderful, laconic Lewis Lapham, this should not be missed."
Sarah Hughes, The London Observer
"The American Ruling Class is the most cinematically subversive film to come along this decade. Led by the extremely lucid and funny Lewis Lapham, the nation's number one intellectual treasure, the film takes us on a luminous quest... Director John Kirby has fashioned a sly film; it plays with form, but is populist in outreach, transcending documentary expectations with wit, style and political savvy."
Peter Wintonick, Director/Producer, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media
"While fooling around with my TV, seeking out the Cubs-Sox ball game, I accidentally encountered a remarkable and revelatory documentary. The American Ruling Class k.o.'d me, telling 'ordinary' citizens who it is - or what means are used - to run our 'democratic' society. The mentor of two of the 'heirs' just out of Yale University, was Lewis Lapham, the most hip and perceptive editor of all our monthlies. It is an astonishing program - but, more important, tells us who really runs things.
P.S. I missed the Cubs-Sox game, nothing was lost, much was gained."
"[A] satirical tour thru the corridors of power with Lewis Lapham...The film takes on our political and financial elites, the top of America's food chain, but it's all for a purpose: to remind us of those who are struggling just to make ends meet."
"[An] entertaining documentary, The American Ruling Class offers a guided safari through the tribal haunts of the power elite."
James Wolcott, Vanity Fair
"The film's best moment comes with a Barbara Ehrenreich interview. In the late 90s Ehrenreich went undercover to take on various low-wage jobs (waitress, hotel chambermaid among them) and then report on how difficult it was to live on those earnings. She discusses her findings here, which culminate in a full-blown musical number, in which employees sing about being nickel-and-dimed. The scene is divine madness...Ultimately, The American Ruling Class feels like a documentary version of The Wizard of Oz as director John Kirby and Lapham attempt to illuminate the heart of darkness inside the American political-economic machine. What they find ain't pretty."
Mathew Hays, Montreal Mirror
"A very funny and fascinating search for America's ruling class. ***1/2"
Mark Rifkin, This Week in New York
"Lapham...with his easy charm and Luciferian tendency to pop up out of nowhere, injects every scene he's in with sly humor."
Darrel Hartman, Yale Alumni Magazine
"The American Ruling Class was a highlight of WFF's season. A poignant look at what's both sublime and sad about our country, made by artists with genuine heart, brains, and class."
Steve Lawson, Executive Director, Williamstown Film Festival
"Expect hard-hitting glimpses of America's class war and the widening gap between rich and poor...The economic and political observations expressed in The American Ruling Class are as lethally on-target as a Red-tailed Hawk's deadly talons. Quirky, amusing, original, educational, and illuminating, it's like watching a Michael Moore documentary set to show tunes."
"That unusual animal, the political documentary with high-wattage star power"
John Anderson, VARIETY
"I know we're not supposed to have favorites, but I've seen this movie twice and I love it."
Jane Rosenthal, co-founder, Tribeca Film Festival from the New York Times
"A cleverly contemporary social analysis...Unforgettably revealing interviews."
New York Press