About halfway through Su Friedrich’s death-of-a-neighborhood video diary Gut Renovation, the venerable avant-garde filmmaker videotapes a well-dressed couple carrying oversized shopping bags, and when they ask what she’s doing, Friedrich answers that she’s just documenting “the rich new people” who’ve moved into the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where Friedrich has lived since 1989. The couple responds that Friedrich is being rude, and that she doesn’t know anything about them. Via onscreen text, Friedrich says that the couple had a point, because she too hates being filmed. Except that wasn’t their point—not entirely. It wasn’t just Friedrich taping them that was rude; it was her presuming they were doing something wrong just for having enough money to live on a newly gentrified block.
Gut Renovation is painful to watch, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it hurts to see so much of the old character of Brooklyn disappear, month by month, as Friedrich documents art spaces, small businesses, and factories giving way to exorbitantly priced condos and retail chains—a process that requires years of closed sidewalks, rubble-strewn lots, and incessant construction noise. But it also hurts because Friedrich isn’t an investigative journalist by trade, so she reacts to events with an unfocused rage, peppered with a few damning facts and figures. What’s lacking is a larger cultural, historical, and aesthetic context. For example, some of the factories that have closed in Williamsburg—like the Domino Sugar plant—were symbols of the worst aspects of corporate greed during the Industrial Revolution. And though Friedrich decries the huge tax breaks the developers are getting, she admits at the start of the documentary that she and her artist friends exploited similar loopholes when they moved to Williamsburg in the ’80s, back when the neighborhood was less desirable.
As for the aesthetic issues, after the 10th or so time Friedrich tours one of Williamsburg’s new condos and scoffs at nice-looking glassed-in showers and stone kitchen countertops, her argument gets reduced to a matter of her own personal preference for the funky and crumbling over the slick and new. There’s real outrage and injustice nestled within Gut Renovation, as Friedrich catches wealthy people and governments exerting their will through weaselly legal maneuvers, while ignoring legitimate protests. (In one of the movie’s more powerful moments, Friedrich recounts the story of a friend forced out by the kind of developers posting “Welcome To The Neighborhood” ads around Williamsburg, then says, “It was her neighborhood before they welcomed her to it.”) But Friedrich’s snide tone gets in the way, turning a study of capitalism run amok into one artist who just can’t stand all these rich squares and their “fancy dogs.”