FILM: In The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts

FILM: In The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts
(A scene from “Generation Wealth,” playing Aug. 22 at Naro Cinema in Norfolk. Photo courtesy Lauren Greenfield)

By Tench Phillips, Naro Cinema

I grew up middle class in Norfolk, and by all measures of a less material society back in the fifties and sixties, I grew up privileged. My father was a successful self-made businessman who benefited from a rising standard of living and a growing military presence in Hampton Roads. As the regional economy and the middle class grew, my dad’s car dealerships prospered. Initially he and my uncle owned a franchise for compact English Fords, followed by an American Motors Rambler franchise, then Mercury and Lincoln, then Oldsmobile, and later the family business expanded into a Mercedes Benz and Range Rover franchise. 

My dad took full advantage of local advertising offered by the three television stations. He and his brother became something of local celebrities known for their commercial spots where they appeared in goofy skits that spoofed well-known historical brothers while marketing their own brand – The Phillips Brothers. The spots were just corny and memorable enough to catapult them into one of the area’s most renowned business owners. 

Since my dad and I share the same name – he’s a Jr and I’m the Third –  I couldn’t shrink away from all the public attention. As you might expect, I took a lot of good-natured ribbing from my fellow classmates. But I was careful to befriend some of the jocks in school for added protection against a few local bullies I ran into at Norview High School.

Somewhat shy by nature as a teenager, I really wasn’t comfortable with my own unearned notoriety. I tried to channel it by carving out my own way in school. And although I was quite self-conscious, I don’t think I suffered any real psychological damage. But my upbringing did make me keenly aware of class differences, money, and privilege – even though my family’s material wealth only really became more conspicuous after I had left town to attend college in another state. 

Up until graduating from college, I took full advantage of driving hot new cars – demos that were lent to me by my father – and the status I gained from such perks. But soon my interests were redirected by the heady days of social revolution in the late sixties and seventies. Young people were awakening to new music, anti-war activism, and the explosive social struggles for the rights of women, African-Americans, and for all of the natural world.

We were discovering mind expanding substances like LSD and sacred medicinal plants. My deep inner voyages and profound visions changed my perception of the world and my own place within it. The voices of the ancient ones spoke to me and informed my own indigenous cosmology. We are all deeply connected in the web of life and the Earth is our Mother. I saw human society along with nature and nonhuman animals as sharing the finite resources of a limited planet. My early competitive striving to achieve wealth and status gradually diminished to be replaced by new shared values for the benefit of the many, not just for the few.

Many more of us are now aware of the gross injustices and the irreparable harm being done to biological life on our planet. And yet the laws and regulations governing our society continue to protect corporate exploitation. Big money and political power rule, and as a result many of us can feel impotent and discouraged. We distract ourselves, and try to numb our loneliness and isolation with material consumption, legal and illegal drugs, sex, religion, television, work, etc. This is the toxic American culture and economy we live in, and it’s making a lot of money for the capital class. But not for most Americans.

Inequality rules in America. The richest 400 Americans own as much wealth as 80 million families or 62% of Americans. In fact the bottom 47% are drowning in such debt that they have no wealth. And we know that the inequities are worsening under our current administration and its support for Wall Street. 

The stock market, owned predominantly by the wealthiest Americans has increased in value by over ten times since 1980. During the same period, the country’s real economy, the gross domestic product (GDP) managed to double, and yet wages adjusted for inflation actually declined.

So how does the U.S. compare to the other developed countries of the world? The 2018 World Inequality Report has been compiled by a group of global economists that included the author of the popular book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” Thomas Piketty. They used a measure known as the “inclusive development index,” which factors in data on income, health, poverty, and sustainability. The U.S. ranks 23 out of 30 developed nations. The country scored low points for the unequal distribution of income and wealth, and the high level of poverty. Additionally, the country received particularly low marks in the areas of social protection—defined as public welfare and robustness of the social safety net. Labor compensation in the U.S. was also ranked low. 

The world economists explain the reasons for the low-ranking received for the richest nation on earth. “The income-inequality trajectory observed in the United States is largely due to massive educational inequalities, combined with a tax system that grew less progressive despite a surge in top labor compensation since the 1980s, and in top capital incomes in the 2000s. Continental Europe meanwhile saw a lesser decline in its tax progressivity, while wage inequality was also moderated by educational and wage-setting policies that were relatively more favorable to low and middle-income groups.”

And the situation just gets worse with the new tax bill passed by the Trump administration. According to estimates from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the top 20 percent of earners receive 70 percent of the bill’s benefits, and the top one percent get 34 percent. And with the lower corporate tax rates, companies are showering their shareholders with stock buybacks, returning nearly $700 billion to investors this year. That flies in the face of  the argument that lower corporate tax rates would increase investment in new production and raise the wages of workers.

Who constitutes the 1 percent of Americans? Not surprisingly, it takes a massively higher income to crack the top percentile of wage earners: you’d have to make $450,000 in adjusted gross income (AGI) to make the cut. And to rank among the highest 1% of Americans by wealth requires net assets of more than $7 million. It’s been estimated that if the income and wealth at the top in the U.S. were redistributed evenly among all Americans, household incomes would average $250,000 a year and would have a household wealth of one million dollars. Sounds like the prescription for a utopian society, doesn’t it?

Inequality is, of course, much worse if we include the billions of destitute people in the entire world. Eight billionaires own as much wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest of the world. Of course the top 1 percent of the world consists of a lot more than just eight people. According to the Global Rich List, to make the top 1 percent of the richest people in the world, you would need an income of just $32,400 a year to make the cut. Or a net worth of $770,000 per household. Many of us who don’t consider ourselves wealthy are in fact part of the global 1 percent. Find out your ranking in the world by going to the website www.globalrichlist.com – an organization that brings awareness to worldwide income disparities that is operated by the charity, Care International.

The new documentary “Generation Wealth” explores our culture’s addiction to wealth and status. It will show on Wednesday, Aug 22 in the Naro ‘New Non-Fiction Film’ series with a post-film discussion. It’s from filmmaker and artist Lauren Greenfield whose previous film, “The Queen of Versailles,” showed here a few years ago. Lauren’s multi-platform art project is a personal journey as well as an historical essay. The film bears witness to the global boom–bust economy, the corrupted American Dream, and the human costs of late stage capitalism, narcissism, and greed in the Age of Trump. We hear the stories of the ultra-rich, the celebrities, as well as those aspiring for wealth, at any cost.

Our modern epidemic of wealth addiction is depicted in Tibetan Buddhist cosmology as the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, one of the six psychic realms in the Tibetan Wheel of Life. Ancient mandala iconography show these demon-like figures with bloated bellies and tiny little mouths. Their cravings are ravenous and they must constantly be shoving food into their open mouths, and yet can never satisfy their hunger. 

This mythic depiction is useful in analyzing the underlying causes of all our cultural addictions. Whether our pathologies lie in materialism, food, alcohol, drugs, online social networking, or perfectionism – we are chasing substitutes to fill the hole in our souls. Our psychic pain can come from past traumas and the stories we tell ourselves – the shame of not being good enough or deserving, the loneliness of our isolation and disconnection. 

Practicing mindfulness, self-compassion, and forgiveness can free our hearts from the suffering and shame of the hungry ghosts. Just as we need to call forth the spiritual discipline needed to heal ourselves, we must find the political will to heal collectively. 

Our country is under siege by hungry ghosts, and many of us are discouraged and in despair. Realizing our shared values is the first step of our collective healing. Then doing our part to support the neediest in our society – the homeless, the immigrants, the destitute, and the threatened animal and plant species. 

And then we must participate in the politically hard work of social change – to strengthen workers voices, to invest in education, to reform Wall Street, to provide accessible health care for everyone, to fix the tax system, and to get big money out of political campaigns. We have a lot of work to do. But in our efforts to heal the world, we will heal ourselves.

Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema

GAUGUIN: Voyage to Tahiti  

French artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was an innovator of modern art, along with his contemporaries Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne. By 1891, Gauguin was already well-known in artistic circles, but had grown tired of the civilized world and its political and moral conventions. Leaving his wife and children behind, he ventures alone to Tahiti, consumed with a yearning for new inspiration. Pushing deep into the Tahitian jungle, Gauguin meets Tehura, his muse, who will consume his mind and inspire his most iconic works of art. In French with subtitles. Shows Tues, Aug 21.

FIVE SEASONS: THE GARDENS OF PIET OUDOLF  

This beautiful documentary is an intimate immersion into the renowned work of landscape designer Piet Oudolf. The film visits Oudolf’s own gardens at Hummelo, Netherlands along with visits to his signature public works in Chicago and southwest England, as well as visits to the desert wildflowers in West Texas, the post-industrial forests in Pennsylvania, and his beloved installation, the Brooklyn High Line.  Shows Tues, Aug 28.

FAR FROM THE TREE  

Discover the courage of compassion through the eyes of parents and their acceptance of their one-of-a-kind kids. Based on The New York Times bestseller by Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree is an intimate, profoundly human look at families raising children that society deems ‘abnormal’. Featuring mothers and fathers who are learning to parent extraordinary children – from those with dwarfism and Down Syndrome to those who are prodigies or transgendered. The film will explore the tensions and questions universal to all families about identity, difference and the ways in which adversity unites us and enriches our love for one another. Shows Wed, Aug 29.

SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD  

Scotty Bowers, landed in Hollywood right after the Second World War and soon became a confidante and lover to many of Hollywood’s greatest stars including Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy. Scotty, who is now 95 years of age, has finally revealed his secrets – initially in his recent bestselling memoir ‘Full Service’ and now in Matt Tyrnauer’s hugely entertaining tell-all documentary. Shows Wed, Sept 5.

MCQUEEN  

Visonary artist and designer Alexander McQueen’s rags-to-riches story is a modern-day fairy tale, laced with the gothic. Mirroring the savage beauty, boldness and vivacity of his own designs, this documentary is an intimate revelation of McQueen’s aesthetic – both tortured and inspired, which celebrates a radical and mesmerizing genius of profound influence. And like McQueen’s designs, the film is thrilling, troubling, and tinged with tragedy. The beautifully lush score is by Michael Nyman. Date to be announced.