The 1980s were terrible. Greed was good. Deregulation marketed bad behavior as freedom. Hedonism replaced self-determination.
So goes the subtext of the HBO Max documentary “Class Action Park.” The film, and the subject it covers, is funny and shocking while still 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 sense that rules should not apply to him. Rides that were designed by engineers were tinkered with and made “bigger and more exciting” by Mulvihill before going into construction. Since Mulvihill had no training in design work, his efforts led to contraptions resembling something a 10-year-old would doodle.
State law required insurance for the operation, so Mulvihill created a shell company in the Caymans that provided no real insurance at all. If someone was injured at Action Park, Mulvihill never settled and never admitted to doing anything wrong.
About those injuries. The rides seemed designed to cause physical harm. The details should be discovered by the viewer. To get a sense of the madness of the park, there was a beer garden right next to the souped-up go-karts. Drunk patrons would race, chase teenage employees off the track, and even end up taking the contraptions (capable of speeds up to 60 miles per hour) onto the freeway that split up the park.
“Class Action Park” resembles “Lord of the Flies” as retrofitted for the New York City metro area where kids as young as 14 — usually guys fueled by testosterone — were put in charge of attractions with no adult oversight.
Broken bones and asphalt burns weren’t the only consequence. There were multiple drownings in Action Park’s wave pool. Someone is electrocuted. The documentary shifts tone to somberly focus on one particularly awful death and the unsettling indifference the park owner took towards the family.
“Class Action Park” takes the phrase “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye” to the nth degree. If there’s any complaint with the film, the shift from shock to somber is a bit sudden with not enough insight. It’s like the filmmakers realized teenagers needlessly dying might not be as funny as most of the movie lets on.
How was Mulvihill able to get away with all of this? Sure, the Wall Street connections and free-wheeling deregulation that led to the invention of Action Park are the main culprits. But good, old-fashioned palm-greasing and corruption are just as plausible. The park was big business for a sleepy little town that loved all the money flowing into the attraction from nearby New York City. It was easy to turn the other way when money was to be made.
Our current president makes a cameo as a potential investor, only to dismiss the park as “nuts.” Imagine that for a moment. Too crazy for Donald Trump.
Through talking-head interviews with former employees and attendees (such as comedian Chris Gethard), documentarians 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 no one was telling you what to do; and that, now, people are just too sensitive.
Over the course of the film, by design of the documentary’s narrative, it dawns on most interviewees that this is a perfectly valid feeling to have as a 15-year-old. Not so much as an adult. Perhaps those feelings of our youth are a bit toxic and should be purged by some self-reflection.
“Time is the school in which we learn,” writes poet Delmore Schwartz. “Time is the fire in which we burn.” Such sentiments would be fitting taglines for “Class Action Park.”
The documentary will make you laugh. It will also make you gasp. But the simplicity of the subject hides some larger, uglier truths about our recent past and how we think we remember things. That’s what helps elevate “Class Action Park” into something more interesting than the average straight-to-streaming doc. Even if you remember the 1980s as something wonderful, the film serves as a good antidote.
In real life, James Owen is a lawyer and executive director of energy policy group Renew Missouri. He created/wrote for Filmsnobs.com from 2001-2007 before an extended stint as an on-air film critic for KY3, the NBC affiliate in Springfield. He was named a Top 20 Artist under the Age of 30 by The Kansas City Star when he was much younger than he is now.