New 'American Experience' film to find parallels in modern, 19th-century American excess

Last Updated by Chip Chandler on
John Pierpont Morgan (center) is featured in "The Gilded Age."
Courtesy Library of Congress

A compelling portrait of an era of glittering wealth contrasted with extreme poverty, “The Gilded Age” makes its debut on American Experience this week.

The film, to premiere at 8 p.m. Tuesday, is produced and directed by Sarah Colt and executive produced by Mark Samels.

Thirty years after the Civil War, America had transformed itself into an economic powerhouse and was fast becoming the world’s leading producer of food, coal, oil and steel.

But the transformation had created stark new divides in wealth, class and opportunity. By the end of the 19th century, the richest 4,000 families in the country — less than one percent of all Americans — possessed nearly as much wealth as the other 11.6 million families combined.

The simultaneous growth of a lavish new elite and a struggling working class sparked passionate and violent debate over questions still being asked today: How is wealth best distributed, and by what process? Should the government concern itself with economic growth or economic justice? Are we two nations — one for the rich and one for the poor — or one nation where everyone has a chance to succeed?

“Once again, people are questioning whether America is fulfilling its promise, if there really is equal opportunity for everyone,” Samels said. “Examining the original Gilded Age reminds us that the questions and debates we currently wrestle with are ones that have defined us for over a century.”

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