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‘The Gilded Age’ review: Excellent, but occasionally superficial, overview

John Pierpont Morgan, center, one of the financial

John Pierpont Morgan, center, one of the financial giants profiled in "American Experience: The Gilded Age." Credit: Library of Congress

THE DOCUMENTARY “American Experience: The Gilded Age”

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT’S ABOUT By the end of the 19th century, some 4,000 families controlled as much wealth as “the other 11.6 million (American) families,” according to program notes for “The Gilded Age.” This two-hour “American Experience” film explores how they got that wealth — coal, oil, steel and railroads had a lot to do with it — and how the growing working class responded. This program also profiles the giants of the age — Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, the Vanderbilts — and the political giants who opposed them, such as William Jennings Bryan.

MY SAY Long ago, some 500 Gilded Age mansions spread across the North Shore of Long Island. With their porticos and spires, balustrades and mansard roofs, many of these were the gaudy symbols of a gaudy era that’s long gone, like so many of them now. But you already know this: Long Island was one of the cradles of the Gilded Age, where Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Pratts, J.P. Morgan, and F.W. Woolworth built their palaces after they’d built their fortunes.

“The Gilded Age” doesn’t acknowledge this — admittedly an oversight — but it at least explores the origins of how they got there in the first place. Over a period covering just 20 years, from 1877 to about 1897, the United States was transformed by wealth, or to paraphrase one historian quoted here, Americans could go to bed at night and seem to wake up in another country the following morning. Everything changed and everyone, too. A ruling class was established, while a vast, surging underclass filled their growing factories and steel mills. Populists and their messiahs like Henry George, Mary Elizabeth Lease and Bryan established new political parties and new political bases.

As historian Nell Irvin Painter colorfully explains, “gilded is not golden, but the patina of covering something else — the shiny exterior and the rot underneath,” she says. Wealth begat poverty while the sharp divide between the few “haves” and the multitude of “have nots” begat a whole new era of history, led by someone else who had a “cottage” on Long Island: Teddy Roosevelt.

“The Gilded Age” is another solid, intelligent “American Experience,” but you, too, might be left with the impression that this remarkable period in U.S. history was far too boisterous, and complex, for a two-hour overview to adequately cover. You already know about the Long Island oversight (Teddy’s ignored too), but there are others. For example, there’s no mention of Mark Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton and so many other literary titans. They defined the Gilded Age, literally. Henry George — who died at the end of the era he shaped (1897) — gets superficial treatment, but what viewers don’t learn is that “Georgism” (the idea that the value derived from land and natural resources belongs to everyone) rivaled “Marxism” as the great 19th century economic philosophy and that it endures to this day. He was one of the most famous people of the entire century. Here he’s just another name.

BOTTOM LINE Excellent if occasionally superficial overview that’s constrained by the complexity of the Gilded Age. Another two hours would’ve helped.

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