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Australia 2011
Directed by
Pria Viswalingam
104 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

Decadence - Decline Of The Western World

Synopsis: A documentary asking if the global dominance of the West is coming to an end.

Decadence – Decline of the Western World addresses six aspects of modern life: money, democracy, education, culture, family and religion. It examines how these core elements have made the Western world the predominant civilisation for the last 300 years. It looks at how, over humankind’s history, mighty empires have come and gone, and questions whether we are just another of those doomed phenomena. It asks a couple of critical questions: how come in an era of unprecedented wealth there is less happiness than ever before, and why are we working longer and harder to pay for more?

Disturbing and salutary, Pria Viswalingam’s film is a pretty smart condensing and reworking of what was a six-part television series, Decadence: The Meaninglessness of Modern Life, commissioned by SBS. As such it does smack a tad of TV rather than film, but it is to the credit of presenter, writer and director Viswalingam that he makes his subject matter interesting. He is an engaging and entertaining host, but he also co-opts some terrific minds such as Noam Chomsky to enhance the discourse whilst the arresting visuals also lend an imaginative slant to what could otherwise become dry subject matter. The film has a structural framework involving the four seasons, and these are represented across the world with filming in the US, Britain, Europe, Iraq, India and Thailand, making for a rich visual impact.

We are treated to a whistle-stop history of democracy, including ancient Greece, the Magna Carta and the US. America’s attempts to force its brand of democracy on “bloodied, bewildered countries” is explored. In the section on money, Viswalingam looks at the history of modern banking and asks “When did debt become credit?” He examines modern culture, with the merchandising of all aspects of life, and criticises the media for giving us a junk culture which worships a “passing parade of frothy narcissism”. He looks at the decline of religion, family values, and constant use of sex to sell everything. All in all he claims we are in the middle of an “epidemic of meaninglessness”. Interestingly he marks the iconic Sixties as a turning point, an era in which important freedoms were achieved for the individual. But then this tipped over the edge, leading to a rampant hedonism and cult of the individual that has taken over the western world.

In some ways the film tries to cover too much in a short amount of time, and thus was more in-depth as a series. However the subject matter is of utmost importance, and a good companion piece to other films looking at the crisis of modern capitalism run amok, whether documentaries such as such as The Corporation (2003)  and or fictional dramatizations such as In The Company of Men (2010).

Decadence isn’t all doom and gloom. Viswalingam asks whether we are coming into the last hurrah for the West, or whether the values that made it great can be revived to bring about a new Renaissance. The viewer is left to answer this question for themselves, and whichever way you lean, there is plenty of food for thought.




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