When I first made contact with the iron 20 years ago, I could give a shit about the sport of bodybuilding. Discovering and watching the VHS Pumping Iron cassette rented from my local video store was one of those rare, life-moment game changes. Watching these characters -their passion, camaraderie and resultant larger than life physiques, I was motivated, hooked and inspired. I was just another person from the “mainstream” that Pumping Iron connected to the hardcore bodybuilding subculture. The film also connected others bitten by the iron bug to each other. We revered those men as gods, their quotes became part of gym lexicon and through them, I became hooked and in love with the sport. It was the early 90’s; there was not yet the pervasive influence and flood of information available on the internet, and that very scarcity of information limited to the monthly mags made these figures more appealing and the icons that came before them, even more enduring. The theme song of the original, “Everybody Wants To Live Forever” was an anthem paying tribute not to physical immortality, but to the enduring glory of excellence that transcends generations.
Now almost 30 years since the first Pumping Iron, despite the explosion of bodybuilding and fitness in the mainstream culture, the sport of bodybuilding has suffered an identify crisis accompanied by a decline in popularity and public interest. Few people can identify with or even care about it’s elite participants. While young gym rats can quote a dozen YouTube fitness “celebrities” many struggle to list even the top 6 guys at the elite level. The Evolution of Bodybuilding was an attempt to revitalize some public interest in the sport, but it eventuated into little more than a self-serving, last ditch homage to riding the nuts of the fast declining Joe Wei(r)der and his crumbling stranglehold on the sport.
When I watched the Pumping Iron reunion footage in Raw Iron, I felt somewhat ambivalent seeing my heroes as older men. Ed Corney in a wheelchair, Franco slurring like he’d suffered a stroke, Lui flexing with misplaced pride in Arnold’s face geriatrically challenging him stating, “I still got it”. But seeing Arnold’s wizened visage on screen even older in Generation Iron, juxtaposed against footage of his physically prime years is a weird and somewhat eerie exercise in cognitive dissonance. Our action heroes aren’t supposed to age! Superman doesn’t get old! They’re immortal for Christ’s sake!! With stretched skin over his grinning skull, he looks less He-man and more Skeletor. Arnold’s resentment towards the advancement of the sport also does the promotion of the endeavor in its modern context no favours.
Despite being the promoter of one of the biggest shows in the industry, Schwarzenegger laments the decline of bodybuilding due to proportion distortions and an absence of a star driving the sport forward. (In other words, promoting his own Apollonian ideal along with his own star pull) It should be noted that Arnold has been singing the same tune since the early 90’s when bodybuilding’s popularity was at its peak, but this hasn’t kept him from capitalizing on the sharp increases in revenues with his own newly released supplement line and drawing support from its rabid fan base when it suits him. Arnold has done a lot for the sport, but it seemed incongruent for the documentary to include one of the most recognizable figures lending criticism and negativity to the venture.
But Arnold is right about the lack of star power driving the sport forward in an appreciable and bankable direction. Companies are making billions from the associated supplements and increased competitor participation, yet very little of that money trickles down into the athletes’ pockets considering the considerable risk and rigors they expose themselves to in what has become a sport of extremes. Heath possess physical gifts and accompanying arrogance in spades while lacking none of the charisma or sprezzatura that will make him an endearing or enduring icon able to transcend the unknown and fractured attention spans of the mainstream. Beyond the bodybuilding subculture he will always be relegated as “just another drugged-freak” inseparable to all the other steroid freaks by the general populace.
And speaking of that 800 pound elephant in the room, the topic of steroids is given the same fleeting and shallow treatment as any other facet of the sport. The documentary Bigger, Faster, Stronger started the ball rolling in an appreciable level of debate concerning the legitimate and viable use of performance enhancing drugs in sports and other arenas, yet the general dismissiveness paid to the topic in G.I gives tacit consent to move that debate back into the closet. Notwithstanding, the central characters have very little of interest to say on anything of substance regardless.
Whether it’s the reality TV-feel to it’s presentation or merely art reflecting real life, there’s a palpable “whiny” and “bitchiness” that characterize this particular generation. Branch hates Ben. Ben hates Phil. Phil hates Kai. Dennis hates Branch. Victor hates life. Phil hates the public. And around and around it goes for two hours interspersed with some occasional bodybuilding footage. Gone are the days of camaraderie and light-hearted antics motivated by a love of the sport displayed in the original Pumping Iron. The camaraderie has been replaced instead by contract chasing prima donnas with poker faces and chips as large as the cannon ball delts that shoulder them.
Branch Warren sounds like a robot reading lines from a teleprompter at full speed. Vic Martinez’s perpetual scowl makes his very act of existence look like a Sisyphean effort as the boulder of reality comes crashing down on him scene after scene. The morosely oddball and childlike dependent Winklaar sets the bodybuilding stereotype back 60 years. Pakulski plays the part of human guinea pig in a bodybuilding experiment conducted by a living version of Professor Frink; the weird dynamic between Wolf and his step daughter whose lustful on-screen glances border on the creepy. It was good to see the usual Kai Green philosophical pseudo intellectualism tuned down or otherwise heavily redacted. Normally very off-putting with his delusional diatribes, Green actually comes across the most affable of a very ordinary and distinctly two dimensional cast.
Instead of a presenting a pastiche of physical perfection connecting and serving as a worthy addendum to the first film, the viewer is instead left with a shallow, scattered and mostly whiny mosaic of reality TV like schitck. Just as no-one remembers last season’s participants voted off the island (much less the winners for that matter) I predict the same for the names represented in Generation Iron. If the first film revolutionized the sport, countered prevailing stereotypes and gave us names for the ages to remember, then I think this film resets the bar to the sport’s detriment.