Experiencing the desired impact of Victor Ginzburg’s adaptation of Victor Pelevin’s seminal novel doubtless requires at least a cursory familiarity with Russian history and an appreciation for how much ambivalence perestroika generated among the nation’s people before the whole thing finally fell apart. The majority of people alive in this world today who aren’t Russian will probably never be able grasp what the dissolution of an empire that once was considered the most important on the globe does to one’s national identity. Generation P is Ginzburg’s tragic history of a Russia wrenched from its traditional moorings, left to drift as the behemoth it was in a marketplace that greatly favored those nations which benefited from a much greater level of comfort with Western-style “free” market capitalism.
Generation P tells the story of a young erstwhile idealist poet, Babylen (Vladimir Yepifantsev), who finds that his understanding of the “Soviet identity” makes him the perfect agent to translate Western brands to a freshly capitalist Russia. We meet Babylen while he’s working at a kiosk for dubious Chechens, and it is here that he realizes his innate grasp of what people think they want. It’s only a matter of time before he’s jumping from one ad agency to the next, selling out his principles for piles of money which (naturally) don’t satisfy him one bit. The way Ginzburg goes about relating this cynical venture of Babylen’s can be confusing, and at first glace it appears the director’s jettisoning of traditional narrative structure is a result of laziness rather than inventiveness. However, the way the movie alternates between frenzy and listless malaise brilliantly captures the mood of its characters, even if in doing so it becomes a little obvious and on-the-nose.
One time I heard some bro from Latvia explain to me the effects of the Soviet empire’s dissolution on his country by way of an analogy. To his thinking, the Iron Curtain didn’t really fall per se, and it wasn’t really a curtain, either. Rather, the barrier between Eastern communism and Western capitalism was more like this floodgate holding the West at bay. Everyone hoped that with the end of communism in Eastern Europe a flood of personal freedom and prosperity would flow over this gate, enriching the lives of so many downtrodden people. The way he saw it, it was more like the gate was lifted up, and all the sludge and detritus at the base of Western society crept in (he said it was mainly blue jeans and Coca Cola). I’m pretty sure he was paraphrasing someone else, but I always thought it was an interesting way of looking at the sad influence of Western consumerism on the former Eastern Bloc. In a way, Generation P is almost a perfect encapsulation of this idea. Western art and the better angels of its nature don’t influence Babylen hardly as much as its soulless (though efficient) methods to pry capital from the impressionable, which erodes his soul as much as you’d think it would.
Ginzburg’s treatment of Russia in the 1990s limns a society where morals are laughably out of place, and justice comes across as a purely academic notion. Pelevin incorporated Babylonian mythology into his novel as a crucial and recurring theme, an aspect which grounded (and helped make believable) Babylen’s progression from marketing acolyte to grand ad wizard. In the film, this ancient mythology makes some appearances here and there, and seems whacky enough to make an impression on the young Babylen during a particularly entertaining LSD trip. However, the whole thing seems kind of tacked-on until a perfectly over-the-top denouement makes it relevant once more. Generation P suffers from moments of slipshod construction and apparent errors in the editing room. It’s slightly unwieldy, and ultimately ends a bit after it probably should have. However, attempts have been made here and there to capture the emotions (or lack thereof) this shock to the system had on said system’s residents, and while this film isn’t the best of them, it’s certainly a welcome addition.