Film Review: The Price of Everything

Sarah Ward

The battle between creativity and commerce drives this accessible state-of-play examination of the contemporary art world.
Film Review: The Price of Everything

The Price of Everything.

Art thrives on contrast – an enigmatic expression flickering across an otherwise composed face; a sturdy marker of time’s passing transformed into a melted, malleable mess; the vivid mass production of already mass-produced celebrity images and household products – and yet it often willingly avoids the juxtaposition at the medium’s core. Creativity will always drive artistic endeavours, coupled with the compulsion behind it; however in the modern art world, money does more than talk. How dollars came to define the field, and whether a cash value trumps other markers of merit, proves one of the guiding questions behind documentary The Price of Everything. So too does another enquiry, one with wide-reaching applications: whether the act of paying for something establishes its worth and status, whether it should, and what kind of structures reside behind the exercise of such power.

One quote perhaps summarises Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary best, with wealthy collector Stefan Edlis describing those who 'know the price of everything and the value of nothing'. The turn of phrase gives the film its name, but in a movie that doesn’t always shout its statement, it’s also the initial sketch that everything else builds upon. Even before Edlis utters the words partway through the feature, decrying those who favour the reputation surrounding a piece over trusting their own tastes, its substance is apparent. It’s there in the opening montage of works auctioned for higher and higher prices to frenzied crowds, and in the glimpses of dealers and buyers obsessed with figures, most blatantly. It’s also evident in the particular realm that Edlis belongs to, collecting – and in the despairing reality that coveted pieces swiftly segue from objects of beauty for many to expensive decorations for the rich few. 

The sentiment also lurks in the practice of highly regarded artist Jeff Koons, who’s seen deploying employees to physically craft a prolific parade of works. The resulting paintings are created under his guidance, bear his name and are sold for sizeable prices, all without him ever putting brush to canvas. It lingers, too, in the ups and downs of artist Larry Poons, a peer of Frank Stella and Jasper Johns who remains motivated by his love of painting, but has garnered much less fame and acclaim until now. In Marilyn Minter and Njideka Akunyili Crosby, the film shows how perception and persistence intertwine – or appearances and endurance. Both women are devoted to their chosen profession, with Minter noting that she simply wasn’t any good at anything else. That said, they’re also aware of the art market’s sharp edges, whether to their wellbeing through its demanding, judging nature in general, or by specifically seeing their work flipped for a profit by ruthless investors.

In his first feature documentary since 2003’s My Architect, Kahn amasses these tales in the lead up to a Sotheby's auction – a natural, understandable focal point that demonstrates the commodification and commercialisation in immediate, recognisable terms. His informative and entertaining examination adds further detail by stepping through the history of mass-scale sales of contemporary pieces, hearing lamenting insights from art critic Jerry Saltz about the current status quo, and including interviews with other artists such as George Condo and Gerhard Richter, all in a standard, sprawling fashion. But if Edlis gives The Price of Everything a broad general thesis, it’s Sotheby's fine arts chair Amy Cappellazzo who cements the movie’s view of today’s art world. Her knowledge of the medium sits side by side with her need to secure sales, overtly and even uncomfortably so at times. 

Contrasted with recent fictional and fictionalised thematic counterparts, The Price of Everything falls in the middle of Velvet Buzzsaw’s scathing, satirical horrors and At Eternity’s Gate’s yearning existential pains (with the latter espousing the vast difference between Vincent Van Gogh’s standing in death compared to life). A state-of-play documentary more than a concerted damning statement, it nonetheless presents a grim portrait within palatable packaging. While Kahn makes a point of peering at both sides of the creativity-versus-commerce divide, each individual brush stroke still contributes to a distinctive overall picture. The beauty of art is no longer in the eye of the beholder, but in their wallets – and the bleakness of that observation never escapes this fittingly glossy and accessible film.

Rating: 3 ½ stars ★★★☆
The Price of Everything

Director: Nathaniel Kahn
US, 2018, 98 mins
Release date: March 7
Distributor: Madman
Rated: M


About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay