‘The Price of Everything’: a Study in Contrasts

The cuts are devastating and they hurt
A very personable Jeff Koons describes the meaning of his “Gazing Ball Paintings” in “The Price of Everything.” HBO

Although “The Price of Everything” has been available for streaming on HBO for months, Guild Hall was still packed on Saturday night with an audience, including artists, interested in seeing it on the big screen. The screening was followed by a panel discussion with the director, a producer, and an Amagansett artist. The moderator was April Gornik, a successful painter and vice president of the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, which presented the screening.

The film takes its title from an Oscar Wilde quotation used by one of the participants, a collector who stumbled upon contemporary art some decades ago and has amassed a museum-worthy collection. The full quote is a definition of a cynic as one “who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” In the case of Stefan Edlis, the collector and a survivor of Nazi Germany, he uses it to describe his cohorts in the art world. Going over some artwork in an upcoming auction (which serves as the center of the orbit for many of those interviewed for the film) with Amy Cappellazzo, the chairwoman of the global fine arts division of Sotheby’s, he notes “red is good,” “brown is bad,” and other basic rules of thumb for those looking to increase the asset value and marketability of the art they collect.

Viewers of this scene may hate them and their craven sensibilities, but all is not what it seems. As the film’s director Nathaniel Kahn said before the screening, “Don’t believe everything you hear in this film. Just because someone says it doesn’t mean we believe it.” After the screening, he described how he attempted to balance the film’s crasser moments with scenes of more aesthetic purity and resonance. 

The film’s overture is a voice over by Simon de Pury, a longtime Swiss auctioneer, who states, “It’s very important for good art to be expensive” as the hammers fall at auctions at Christie’s for a $52 million Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture and at Sotheby’s for a $98 million Jean-Michel Basquiat painting.

John Alexander, a realist painter and panelist, said he was taken by that scene and the following one in Mr. Koons’s studio, where assistants were recreating great masterworks of art history as part of his “Gazing Ball” series, and how they contrasted with the film’s “beautiful move to [Larry] Poons’s soulful studio in nature, this soulful man in this humble environment.” Mr. Poons, who was a successful artist in the 1960s and ’70s, has since fallen off the art market’s radar, but seems positively serene about it in the film.

Mr. Kahn said the use of Mr. de Pury’s “ridiculous comment” as the lead-in was inevitable, but it was less certain which clips should begin the story. Ultimately, the footage regarding Mr. Koons made the strongest contrast as the lead-in to the rusted lamppost standing at an angle at Mr. Poons’s dilapidated house and studio in upstate New York.

 “The meaning of the film comes from contrasts,” Mr. Kahn said. “The cuts that conveyed the strongest meaning were the cuts of contrast.” These were the cuts that made “us feel in the editing room. They’re devastating. They hurt, and they should hurt because they hurt me when I see them.”

Describing much more of the film would give too much away, but viewers should pay close attention to the end, because Mr. Kahn’s film follows the themes and issues that are raised through the credits. It is a film that will make many angry, but it also offers some redemption. 

Mr. Alexander said he would need to speak “to my shrink and take two Ativans to sleep tonight” and noted to applause that if he ever saw the stainless steel bunny by Mr. Koons featured in the movie in real life, “again, before I die, I’m either going to run it over with my car or throw up all over it.” 

It was the producers of the film who brought the idea for it to the director, and one of them, Carla Solomon, a lead producer, was also featured in the panel. Ms. Solomon, a Sag Harbor resident, said that this project was coming to fruition around the time she was sitting at Ms. Gornik’s kitchen table brainstorming about how to restore the Sag Harbor Cinema after it burned down in 2016. 

She always had the idea of bringing the finished film back to screen in connection with the cinema. Under the cinema’s aegis, with Ms. Gornik on stage with her, and in front of an audience of artists — both financially successful and otherwise — “The Price of Everything” can be said to have come home again.