Laura Gabbert’s City of Gold, an effervescent documentary about the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold, might have been more aptly called Los Angeles Eats Itself. Like Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, the film explores the complex relationship between Los Angeles and its external representation. Gold’s emphasis on hole-in-the-wall restaurants in the city’s lesser known neighborhoods challenges the stereotypical image of L.A. as a cultural monolith that’s often peddled by the mass media to the outside world. Gabbert complicates this conventional image by using Gold’s dissection of the city’s diverse food culture as a means to investigate larger issues like socioeconomic disparities, class tensions, race relations, and the pursuit of the American dream by the metropolis’s immigrant communities.
Following Gold’s journeys across the city in search of authentic culinary experiences, Gabbert captures the dynamic social and economic processes that are radically transforming L.A. in ways that its inhabitants are still struggling to make sense of. One such trip to a hot dog shop uses the proprietor’s story of transforming his business from a small stand into a thriving restaurant to highlight both the neighborhood’s economic resurgence and local ambivalence to its cultural makeover. The film convincingly argues that Gold is as close as anyone to finding meaning in all of this cultural upheaval. At the heart of this thesis is the radical claim that food holds the key to understanding the new and unprecedented socioeconomic shifts currently redefining both L.A.’s image and its way of life. If one wants to understand the people and visions behind these demographic and cultural shifts, Gold argues, you have to look at what and how they eat.
The film is an unabashed love letter to a major U.S. city and its rich cultural diversity that nevertheless maintains a clear-eyed vision of the tensions and inequalities that this new cultural multiplicity breeds. An intrepid urban explorer, Gold recounts an epic journey he undertook to eat at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard, one of the city’s longest thoroughfares, which took several years and brought him face to face with gang violence, poverty, petty crime, and the vast economic inequalities that underpin and in some ways facilitate the city’s culinary splendor. But underlying such a broad-minded approach to food criticism is the idea that by eating like one’s neighbor, they become less foreign, which creates greater possibilities for communal harmony and mutual understanding.
A kind of meta-exploration of the process of criticism itself, City of Gold reminds us that selection is itself a form of criticism. In selecting one cultural product over another to review, the critic—if given such freedom of choice—has already made a vital decision and committed him- or herself to a certain perspective through this very of act of choosing. At first, Gold’s radical freedom to choose the subjects of his criticism stemmed from the relative insignificance of his cultural standing, but as his reputation grew, this freedom became a philosophical stance underpinning his conviction that food criticism should play a vital pedagogical role in stimulating public empathy toward immigrant communities.
In a crucial sequence, Gabbert charts Gold’s role in the radical change unleashed in food criticism as it moved away from focusing strictly on expensive French restaurants to covering taco trucks and small, family-owned restaurants in economically depressed neighborhoods serving food from obscure, often war-torn countries. While scenes of first-generation immigrant restauranteurs praising him for putting their establishments on the map are at times mawkish, they also reveal the constructive power that criticism can have in not only changing the way we understand the subject of its inquiry, but sometimes even transforming the world it analyzes. In capturing what Gold calls these “miracle[s] of entry-level capitalism,” the film affectively defends his assertion that it’s ultimately cooking that makes us human and holds the key to finding harmony amid racial and socioeconomic difference.