Football is one of the most watched sports in the world and it’s easy to see why; when a game is good it’s mesmerising. The ball seems to flow from player to player as they dance around each other, juggling the ball with only their feet and charging around a pitch for 90 minutes running an average distance of 7 miles per game. Whatever you think of the game, you can’t deny that these are incredible athletes with a huge amount of dedication and who train for hours a day to play like they do. Similarly, sprinters train to be faster than everyone else, snooker players train to be the most accurate, high-jumpers to jump the highest. Body builders train to be the biggest. When you say it like that it sounds like any other sport but this is the only sport I can think of where, when you enter a competition, you don’t do the thing you have spent all day, every day doing in order to get there. It’s like playing football for 5 hours a day then going to a match and having all the players stand around taking it in turns to hold the ball in a way that best shows off their legs. Or playing snooker for 5 hours a day so that you can show all the people in the audience how exceptional your thumb arch is. Even weight lifters lift weights at the Olympics.
I think most people are probably a little weirded out by body building. I don’t mean going down the gym and throwing a few weights around, I mean the proper, hardcore, steroid-using, 3 inch thick veins popping out everywhere, strutting around a stage in too much tan and a thong that your missus lent you kind of body building you occasionally see on the glossy front pages of those magazines you always walk straight past in WH Smith. You might have picked one up once or twice to gasp and make disgusted faces at but really, that’s probably all the thought you’ve ever paid towards it. Enter Generation Iron; a documentary by Vlad Yudin, a 32 year-old Russian film-maker with a feature film and two documentaries about rappers, Big Pun and Twista under his belt.
The documentary takes place in the run up to the Mr Olympia 2012 competition where the most jacked, freaky muscle meat-heads in the world go on display to compete for the biggest, most symmetrical body while covered in enough fake tan to supply the population of Essex for a whole month. It is basically a modern day freak show, but where the players are there by choice rather than by whatever unfortunate circumstance life threw their way. It starts out as a modern-day Rocky story with the underdog, Kai Green, an artist of sorts who paints self portraits and poses in subways with a mask on, setting out to beat the current egocentric champion, Phil Heath. The former believes all it takes is “hard, hard work,” and the latter believes he has the added advantage of talent, whatever that means. It is hard while watching this to take any of them seriously I have to confess. They are, after all, doing all of this for aesthetics, and although people generally love to watch achievers doing whatever it is they do best, no-one really likes vanity. Their cause isn’t helped by the constant comparisons with art and sculpture. Schwarzenegger himself says at one point that “the only difference is that we in body-building use a certain machine to train the front deltoid if it’s missing … and an artist or a sculptor uses a chisel and a hammer,” but while the latter requires dexterity, and the talent and vision to create something from nothing, the former simply requires you to make bigger what is already there. There is no talent in having someone point out which muscle is not quite big enough and then sitting at a machine to work on it.
That is not to say that they do not work hard. These guys train in a gym 3 times a day for hours at a time and eat huge, boring meals 6 or 7 times a day usually consisting of some combination of egg whites, white fish, white meat, broccoli, rice, peanut butter and supplements. They make huge sacrifices to try and be the best at what they do, so in that respect they are not that much different from any other athlete, but you can’t help but think they are all troubled human beings in one way or another. Victor Martinez, who finished runner-up in the 2007 Mr. Olympia, lost his sister to a murder in 2009. Kai Green was abandoned by his mother, raised by several foster families and in and out of a juvenile facility before he found body-building. Hidetada Yamagishi was born into a strict Japanese family who never understood him. Branch Warren was born in Texas… One or two presumably didn’t have an interesting enough history to include their back stories so you never really find out why they are doing it, and this is where you start to see cracks.
The main problem is that this film is about the sport of body-building rather than the people that devote their lives to it. If it had been about Heath, and Green’s struggle to best him, then you have a story that follows in the same vein as documentaries such as Seth Gordon’s excellent “The King of Kong.” Had that film been about Donkey Kong the game as opposed to the struggle between lovable hero Steve Wiebe and total weirdo Billy Mitchell it would never have won as many awards as it did. Unfortunately Yudin just introduces character after character, many of them unexceptional, and who all end up saying the same things. He clearly has a deep respect for the sport since everything is presented seriously and without irony, but he somehow fails to capture the emotions of these men when they fail a competition or when they injure themselves. As a result you end up laughing when you should be feeling waves of sympathy. Case in point is when Branch Warren, the film’s most unlovable character, is sitting on his horse when the director says that “people think if you keep working out the way you do in the gym you’re gonna get injured,” to which he replies “the past two injuries I’ve had weren’t in the gym, they were outside the gym,” and then rides off before his horse promptly throws him off the saddle injuring his hamstring. When a documentary is done well, really well, that kind of thing is a tragedy. This was hilarious.
Ultimately the film left me feeling empty and unsatisfied, and that could be as much to do with the subject as much as the documentary itself. If you’ve never seen Pumping Iron and you’re even remotely curious about the weird world of body-building then I would recommend that over this – Arnie is on top amusing form. If you find Generation Iron on Netflix or something then it might be worth a look just so you can point and the screen and go “eww, look at that one!” Parts of it are interesting and informative but at 1:50 it could easily be 20-30 minutes shorter.