If you want to make a convincing case, you need to have powerful rhetoric and/or empirical data. Phillip Montgomery‘s documentary ReGeneration has neither. The documentary argues that Americans, and particularly young Americans, have become apathetic towards the world’s problems. Montogomery then tries to trace the causes of their apathy by tracing a path through technology, media, history, and the overwhelming nature of major issues and crises facing the world today. The movie occasionally trips over a salient or thoughtful point, but ReGeneration spends most of its time working off fallacies, personal anecdotes, and generalities. The result is a simple-minded observation that insults the viewer’s intelligence and the efforts of socially-conscious teenagers.
Within the first few minutes, ReGeneration proves it’s working off fallacies and ignoring context. The movie opens by trying to prove how Americans have declined into apathy, and our high point was the “Greatest Generation”, i.e. World War II veterans. However, this is an imagined past that refuses to acknowledge broader social strife. The movie wants to make its point about American willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, but this argument comes at the expense of ignoring the social oppression of women and minorities. It was a great generation to be a middle class white guy. Not so much for everyone else.
Throughout the movie, ReGeneration refuses to look at historical context. It only wants history as useful a sound bite. The movie can come across a worthwhile historical moment, like Ronald Reagan promoting the belief that Americans can have everything and sacrifice nothing, but then it wants to turn around and say that the 60s were filled with young people engaged in social activism. Montogomery doesn’t seem to understand that the young people of the 60s became the adults of the 80s, and their beliefs filtered down to the youth of today. ReGeneration never addresses how these values became lost, nor does it place responsibility on the adults who didn’t impart these values to their children.
According to ReGeneration, the kids today, namely teens, have lost interest in the world because they’re addicted to technology, and technology feeds people a consumer-driven media. Again, ReGeneration grazes by a worthwhile point: has our intensified relationship with communication devices actually cut us off from the larger world? But this interesting idea is overshadowed by an overwhelming amount of lazy arguments. If technology has made teenagers lazy, then were teenagers upstanding, mature, and ideal citizens before TV came along? Furthermore, why are teenagers being targeted when the entire world is running off communication devices and entertainment? ReGeneration never wants to point the blame at any other generation, because it has to stick with the false notion that other generations were better and have never declined in awareness and activism.
Furthermore, the movie can’t even understand the economic importance of advertising and consumerism. Are we assaulted with advertising at every turn? Absolutely. But purchasing is what makes this economy run. The movie shows the infamous clip of George W. Bush encouraging Americans to go shopping after 9/11, but it’s presented in a vacuum where consumerism is shallow and selfish no matter what. Bush’s statement was absolutely the wrong thing to say at the wrong time, but buying and selling goods and services is what makes our economy run. If I buy a car, then I’m ultimately putting money into the pockets of the people who work for the car company from the executives down to the workers. You can say advertising stops us from seeing larger social issue, but advertising is how many (myself included) make their living. Because we run ads on the site, I get to have a full-time job. ReGeneration wants to take a simple view of a complex world.
And there’s no place for complexity in ReGeneration. The documentary infuriatingly resorts to straw man arguments, generalizations, personal anecdotes, and everything that isn’t research or data. Talking heads throw out statements like “But that’s exactly the world we live in.” That who lives in? Americans inhabit a broad socioeconomic spectrum. Talking heads will constantly say, “I think…”, and base their opinion based on personal experience, and ReGeneration treats these opinions as fact. One commentator makes the declaratory statement, “Kids don’t dig into stuff because that’s part of the Multitask Generation.” This commentator then makes no mention about how public schools aren’t forcing kids to think abstractly because our education system is now based around teaching to a test. How is this system the fault of the “Multitask Generation”?
Whenever ReGeneration takes the time to interview teens, the teens speak out of guilt. They agree that they’re apathetic and no one provides a dissenting opinion. The movie also interviews a couple of new parents who consider themselves apathetic because they don’t think about larger social issues. Allowing these kinds of statements without refutation pushes ReGeneration from idiocy to despicableness. These parents shouldn’t feel an ounce of guilt for devoting all their energy to raising two kids. Their fault isn’t being apathetic. Their fault is not caring about what the filmmakers want them to care about.
The documentary provides an even greater insult to young people who are socially conscious and active. Montgomery wants to focus all of his attention on the youth who aren’t participating in social activism, but the flipside is that he completely ignores all those who are participating. What’s meant to be a call to arms for the apathetic is also a slap in the face to those who have sacrificed and worked hard to be socially active. ReGeneration tells those kids: “What you’re doing isn’t worth recognizing.” How does someone not walk away from that thinking, “If my work isn’t being recognized, then am I really making a difference?” The movie then wants to turn around at the end, use footage from the Occupy Movement, and then act like the movement simply came into being, and that young people had absolutely nothing to do with it.
A perfect example of all of ReGeneration‘s faults comes in a scene where one commentator points out that if “people” (people who are never specified or quantified) didn’t spend all their money on cable and TV and other forms of entertainment, then they would have money for house payments and health care. This simply isn’t true. You could save every penny you have, and health care bills could still bleed you dry if you don’t have health insurance. In September 2011, CNN reported that 16.3% of Americans don’t have health insurance. See what I did there? I did research, and then I proved my point about how it’s idiotic to criticize people for not saving money to spend on health care while refusing to acknowledge that the uninsured will probably go bankrupt from medical bills whether they have cable TV or not. It took me less than a minute to provide data, quantify the problem, and then specify who it was affecting. Montgomery doesn’t spend a minute of his movie doing any of that.
The grand irony of ReGeneration is that it’s a lazy movie trying to criticize other people for being lazy. When Montgomery is unwilling to make the effort to expand his arguments beyond simple-minded statements, it’s hypocritical for him to turn around and criticize a vague concept of youth behavior for an unwillingness to look at the larger world. ReGeneration is like listening to an impassioned stupid person. It’s rarely causes anger or any impassioned response from the listener. It simply conjures mild annoyance because you know you can’t change a moron’s meandering opinions or force them to critically consider their spurious claims.