The American Ruling Classis 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.
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?