The 80s were terrible. Greed was good. Deregulation has marketed bad behavior as freedom. Hedonism has replaced self-determination.
So goes the subtext of the HBO Max documentary “Class Action Park”. The film, and the subject it tackles, is funny and shocking while condemning its time and place.
Action Park was an attraction of some repute that opened in 1978. Fueled by Wall Street capital obtained by its owner Gene Mulvihill, the park was built on its creator’s feeling that the rules should not apply to him. The rides that were designed by engineers were tinkered with and made “bigger and more exciting” by Mulvihill before going into construction. As Mulvihill had no training in design work, his efforts resulted in contraptions that looked like something a 10-year-old would jot down.
State law required insurance for the operation, so Mulvihill set up a Cayman shell company that did not provide any real insurance. If anyone was injured in Action Park, Mulvihill never settled down and never admitted to doing anything wrong.
About these injuries. The rides appeared to be designed to cause physical damage. Details must be discovered by the viewer. To get a feel for the craziness of the park, there was a beer garden right next to the inflated go-karts. Drunk customers raced, chased teenage employees off the track, and even ended up taking gear (capable of speeds up to 60 miles per hour) on the freeway that divides the park.
“Class Action Park” sounds like “Lord of the Flies” as modernized for the New York metro area, where kids as young as 14 – usually testosterone-fueled guys – have been tasked with attractions without adult supervision.
Asphalt fractures and burns weren’t the only consequence. There have been several drownings in the Action Park wave pool. Someone is electrocuted. The documentary changes tone to darkly focus on a particularly gruesome death and the park owner’s disturbing indifference to family.
“Class Action Park” takes the phrase “Everything’s fun and fun until someone loses an eye” to the nth degree. If there is any complaint with the film, the shift from shock to dark is a bit sudden with not enough insight. It’s as if the filmmakers realized that teens who die needlessly may not be as funny as most movies allow.
How did Mulvihill get away with all of this? Of course, the Wall Street connections and the freewheeling deregulation that led to the invention of Action Park are the main culprits. But good lubrication and old-fashioned palm corruption are just as plausible. The park was a big deal for a sleepy little town that loved all the money that flowed into the attraction in neighboring New York City. It was easy to turn the other way when it came to making money.
Our current president is making an appearance as a potential investor, only to dismiss the park as “crazy”. Imagine that for a moment. Too crazy for Donald Trump.
Through face-to-face interviews with former employees and attendees (like comedian Chris Gethard), documentary makers Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott capture the Action Park experience with a carefree sense of nostalgia. The idea is that things were more fun back then because nobody told you what to do; and that now people are too sensitive.
Over the course of the film, by the design of the documentary’s narrative, most interviewees realize that this is a perfectly valid feeling to have at 15. Not as much as an adult. Maybe these feelings from our youth are a little toxic and should be purged with personal reflection.
“Time is the school in which we learn,” writes the poet Delmore Schwartz. “Time is the fire in which we burn.” Such sentiments would be appropriate slogans for “Class Action Park”.
The documentary will make you laugh. It will also make you gasp. But the simplicity of the subject hides bigger and uglier truths about our recent past and how we think we remember things. This is what helps elevate “Class Action Park” into something more interesting than just the streaming doc. Even if you remember the 80s as something wonderful, the movie is a good antidote.
In real life, James Owen is a lawyer and executive director of the Renew Missouri energy policy group. He created / wrote for Filmsnobs.com from 2001-2007 before a long stint as an on-air film critic for KY3, NBC’s Springfield affiliate. He was named one of the Kansas City Star’s Top 20 Under 30 Artists when he was much younger than he is now.
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