Every so often, when you hear that a painting by Picasso just sold at auction for a record $179 million, or that a Pollock or a Basquiat or a Jeff Koons now routinely fetch prices worthy of a Silicon Valley start-up, it’s easy to wonder what, exactly, is going on. Is this a true expression of the art’s value? Or is it the symptom of some skyrocketing hothouse bubble that has decadently transformed art into gold?

The Price of Everything,” Nathaniel Kahn’s brilliant and captivating documentary about how the art world got converted into a money market, is shrewd enough to know that the answer is both. The movie gazes, with a good amount of woe (but also with the pleasurable voyeuristic charge that tends to accompany displays of great wealth), at what the art world has become: the staggering auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, where masterpieces, old and new, are put on the block to be sold at prices that are 10 times higher than what they would have fetched just 15 years ago; the elite private collectors who are the ones snapping up all the paintings — a global demimonde of connoisseur/investors who, over the last three decades, have made the art market into a de facto stock market, complete with trading and flipping and commodities futures.

And the artists themselves? A majority of the superstars are dead, a handful are alive, but either way they’ve been turned into iconic blue-chip corporations, with their paintings treated as a luxury brand.

It all sounds, on the surface, quite greedy and vulgar and trendy and disreputable. And it probably is. Yet “The Price of Everything” isn’t a simplistic rant against the money culture. Early on, an auctioneer from Sotheby’s makes a highly intuitive point: that great art, almost by nature, needs to be greatly valued (and by that he means expensive), because that’s the culture’s way of protecting it. If a Rembrandt or a Da Vinci or a Bruegel weren’t regarded as “priceless,” then it wouldn’t survive through the centuries. And who gets to determine how much a given piece of art is worth? There’s no formula; on some level, it’s the collective voice of curators and critics and the public. The point is that the market may appear decadent, but that doesn’t mean it’s false. It’s an expression of something: what the culture values. When the works of Andy Warhol began to fetch prices comparable to those of Picasso, it was because the perception of Warhol’s aesthetic had risen in the world. And rightly so.

Yet if “The Price of Everything” acknowledges the organic (and compelling) aspects of the art market, it also points to the ways that something has gone very wrong. This is far from the first documentary to take on the symbiotic dance of art and money, but Kahn, best known for the 2003 confessional portrait of himself and his father, “My Architect,” has conceived the film in a way that’s at once journalistic and philosophical. “The Price of Everything” is an exposé that’s also a freewheeling meditation on what art is.

Kahn, a fantastic interviewer, got access to a major range of inside players from the art world. He talks to the gallery owner Mary Boone, to collectors like the hawkish 92-year-old Chicago philanthropist Stefan Edlis (who loves beauty, but can pinpoint the commercial value of a single brushstroke), to auction-house heavies like Amy Cappellazzo, chairman of the Fine Art division of Sotheby’s, who’s like a puckish Sigourney Weaver character, caught between her art obsession and her capitalist fever, and to artists like Gerhard Richter, who claim (with a wink) to decry the system that has elevated them.

The movie reveals how the current wave of art-commodity mania started in the ’70s — specifically, on October 18, 1973, the day that Robert Scull, a New York taxi-fleet impresario who was a passionate collector of abstract expressionist and pop art, sold off 50 of his most prized works in an auction at the Sotheby Park-Bernet Gallery. At the time, the prices were jaw-dropping (though they now sound fire-sale cheap). Jasper Johns’ 1961 “Target,” for instance, was sold for $135,000. The painting is currently in the possession of Stefan Edlis, who bought it in 1997 for $10 million, and says that it’s now worth $100 million.

In 1973, that sort of inflation was, in the words of one observer, “art sold like a piece of meat.” And the artists themselves got nothing! Yet that doesn’t mean they didn’t benefit. We see a startling piece of footage taken at the Scull Auction, with Robert Rauschenberg hitting Scull (playfully, though it looks like he sort of meant it), taking the piss out of him for making such an obscene “markup” on his paintings, and for reaping all the profit. But then Scull says to Rauschenberg: You’re going to make the profit now. What went up, in one day’s sale, was the assessment of Rauschenberg’s value as a painter. It’s as if the collective forces of the art world, including many of the artists, decided, at that moment, that the work should take a hyperspace leap in price. From that point on, a bunch of rich people could start trading art like hedge funds, and everyone else could bask in the glow of all that sexy, muscle-flexing, headline-making value.

The art world, as captured in “The Price of Everything,” is now driven by a frenzy of speculation, with collectors looking to buy low and sell high. So the question that drives the market is, “Who’s the most undervalued artist?” The movie shows us how this plays out for two legendary artists who live on opposite ends of the continuum.

Jeff Koons is, of course, the eternal (if now aging) poster boy for the selling out of the art world. The film documents his early days as a wolf of Wall Street who awed his bucket-shop coworkers with the dazzle of his salesmanship. And the point is that he’s still a huckster. His art, like the silver inflatable bunny rabbit that is now valued at $65 million (it sits in Stefan Edlis’ living room), is a form of commodity fetishism. It’s Duchamp meets “Shark Tank”: a dada stunt turned into a what is art? This is art! punchline. (It delivers the sin that people — wrongly — accused Warhol of.) The eloquent art historian Alexander Nemerov stands next to one of Koons’ giant bejeweled rings, which looks like something Claes Oldenburg would have made on commission from Kim Kardashian, and decries its machine-tooled “perfection.” At another point we see Nemerov at the Frick Collection, standing before a Vermeer, which inspires him to make the mordant comment, “It deals in what used to be called, in times less defeated than ours, the soul.” In contrast, that is, “to a culture that can put a value on that which is immaterial, like light itself.”

But then there’s the awe-inspiring case of Larry Poons. He first emerged as an art-world star in the ’60s, and in “The Price of Everything” people are still kvelling about his dot paintings, talking about them as if they were Woody Allen’s early, funny films. But Poons, who never stopped following his muse, fell out of the system, in part because he didn’t want to play of game of branding himself with a single, approved style. He’s now 80, stooped but feisty, with bushy white hair and black eyebrows, like Norman Mailer’s ironically serene twin. In his rustic upstate New York workshop, we see the canvases he now works on — sprawling eruptions of pastel that have a vibratory eye-candy intensity worthy of Pollock. Yet his paintings, for decades, were off the grid. No one gave a damn about them.

Until they did! After years in the wilderness, Poons is beckoned back into the art world. A gallery owner wants to show his current work. Cut and mounted, these giant paintings are extraordinary. (The people at the opening can’t believe the colors.) And this means, of course, that they suddenly have “value.” But what did it mean when they didn’t? Poons himself seems more than ready to chuckle at the ironies; he has lived his life believing in art, not money. (He says he wouldn’t be alive if he’d gotten rich.) Yet it’s the sudden intrusion of the money culture that allows him to thrive, once again, as a painter.

“The Price of Everything” exalts in the spirt of art over commerce, yet what’s thrilling about the film — and what echoes in your mind after it’s over — is that it captures all the ways those two forces can’t be separated. The biggest downside of the new cult of trader-collectors is captured by the art critic Jerry Saltz, who says that it always saddens him to attend an auction, because each time another magnificent work goes up for sale he knows it’s the last time he’ll ever see it. Private collections take paintings out of view; most of the works just end up in storage. Their monetary value may never have been higher, but their value in the world ebbs away. And the prices are now so outrageous that even the most powerful museums can no longer afford to purchase them. There’s something amiss in that. As “The Price of Everything” reveals, anyone with the right resources can buy a painting, and own it. But that still doesn’t mean it belongs to them.

Film Review: ‘The Price of Everything’

Reviewed on-line, March 30, 2018. Running time: 98 MIN.

  • Production: An HBO Documentary Films release of a Hot & Sunny Productions, Anthos Media prod. Producers: Jennifer Blei Stockman, Debi Wisch, Carla Solomon. Executive producers: Jane Wilf, Mark Wilf, Audrey Wilf, Zygi Wilf, Regina K. Scully, Katharina Ott-Bernstein, Jeffrey Pechter.
  • Crew: Director: Nathaniel Kahn. Camera (color, widescreen): Robert Richman. Editors: Brad Fuller, Sabine Krayenbühl, Phillip Schopper. Music: Jeff Beal.
  • With: Jeff Koons, Larry Poons, Stefan Edlis, Amy Cappellazzo, George Condo, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Margaret Lee, Marylin Minter, Gerhard Richter.