Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary “The Price of Everything” takes its title from Oscar Wilde’s famous definition of a cynic as a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. So don’t say Kahn, who’s best known for “My Architect” (2003), about his relationship with father, Louis Kahn, didn’t warn you. The film casts a very cold eye on the commodification of the contemporary art market. The art historian Barbara Rose would seem to be speaking for the director when she says, “That is what contemporary art has become: It is a luxury brand.”
“The Price of Everything” goes to art galleries, art fairs, art auctions, and artist’s studios. In none does money, extremely large sums of money, go unmentioned. The one place where the mentions are scornful is at the upstate New York studio of the painter Larry Poons. He’s old (81), he’s endearingly cranky, and he looks like an unmade cot — “unmade bed” would give him too much credit. He’s the closest thing the documentary has to a hero.
Jeff Koons is chief among its many villains. Actually, villain is too strong. Koons is rather charming, in a slightly smarmy way. Let’s say dubious characters. Amy Cappellazzo, chairman and executive vice president of the fine art division of the auction house Sotheby’s, is a close second. She’s like Cruella de Vil with a double major in business and fine arts.
Koons is far more famous than Poons, much better dressed, and richer than God’s uncle. Kahn may have lucked out with the Poons/Koons symmetry, but he sure runs with it. One of Koons’s most notorious works is a sculpture, “Rabbit.” Several times, Kahn shows us actual rabbits gamboling about Poons’s yard. Such neatness is in keeping with the documentary’s feel and style, which are very HBO: slick, clean, technically assured. “The Price of Everything” is, in fact, produced by HBO Documentary Film and debuts on the cable channel on Nov. 12.
The implicit castigation the documentary has to offer is hard to miss. So is the sense of overriding fascination. Is it possible to cast a cold eye if the look being given is so wide-eyed? Everything seems vastly glamorous (well, other than Poons’s hair). Finger-wagging and lip-smacking are an uncomfortable combination.
The documentary has its memorable moments. Period footage of the now-legendary 1973 auction of contemporary art by the collector Robert Scull is riveting. That really was the birthplace of contemporary art as a growth stock. Among those in attendance was the artist Robert Rauschenberg, understandably irked at the prices Scull was getting for works that had gotten the creators so much less. “We work for each other,” Scull tells him. “Ownership is involvement,” Scull says. “Acquisition is involvement.” He’s not wrong, but involvement is a lot different from investment.
We see the artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby watching via computer from her East Los Angeles studio as a bidding war erupts at Sotheby’s in New York for her painting “Drown.” We encounter the artist Gerhard Richter. Getting to see and hear him, even if this briefly, is a bit like bumping into a god who’s stepped down from Olympus for the day. He flatly states that he’d much rather his works at auction would go to a museum rather than a private collector. This is the deepest damage that the explosion in the contemporary art market has done: how it puts so many works out of the reach of public collections. The documentary touches on this only in passing, a telling weakness.
The two most interesting people in the film are a collector and art critic. Stefan Edlis has the long, lupine look not of a Bond villain but a Bond villain’s father. He seems almost sinister. But the more time we spend with him the more interesting his backstory becomes (there’s a reason for that faint European accent) and the more appealing his obvious shrewdness and hard edge grow. If his name sounds familiar, that’s because — well, the reason for the familiarity will come as a happy surprise to other viewers at the film’s end. The art critic is Jerry Saltz, of New York magazine. He doesn’t show up often, but when he does he’s just as he is on the page: smart, tart, unblinking. He knows the score — or, if you will, the bottom line — in a way that the rest of the film never quite does.
THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING
Directed by Nathaniel Kahn. At Coolidge Corner. 99 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13, some casual obscenities are heard and nude paintings seen)Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.