Vlad Yudin’s “Generation Iron” (2013

Generation Iron

EVERY SO OFTEN, among those who care about this sort of thing, you hear someone or other describe the 1977 docudrama Pumping Iron as “the best film about bodybuilding”, which is of course true but also something of an understatement. After all, George Butler and Robert Fiore’s adaptation of Charles Gaines’s book had the effect, at a stroke, of making Arnold Schwarzenegger a star, bringing bodybuilding into vogue, and inspiring the fitness craze of the 1980s. And you may even choose to go a little further. The emergence of the waxed and sweat-covered and pumped-up action hero, in more than a few cases played by the charismatic Austrian himself, had as much to do with the emergence of gym culture as it did with the macho cowboy image––and some might say cowboy diplomacy––of President Ronald Reagan.

It was forty years and many, many squats and deadlifts and barbell curls later that a sequel of sorts to Pumping Iron finally arrived. In Generation Iron, whose producers include Pumping Iron’s Jerome Gary, the little-known director Vlad Yudin follows a new generation of bodybuilders, including Phil Heath, Kai Greene, Branch Warren, and Dennis Wolf, as they train for the upcoming Mr. Olympia event. Like its spiritual predecessor, Generation Iron is less of a story and more of a meditation. And, like its predecessor, it shows its subjects not to be the meat-heads so many assume them to be: Mickey Rourke, whose gravelly narration is almost always welcome, says as much when he describes Heath et. al as being “in a freak show, with no circus tent to hide away in.”


Like its predecessor, it shows its subjects not to be the meat-heads so many assume them to be: Mickey Rourke, whose gravelly narration is almost always welcome, says as much when he describes Heath et. al as being “in a freak show, with no circus tent to hide away in.”


A major change in the evolution of the “sport”––though arguably bodybuilding lies at the intersection between sport and performance art––is the emergence of human growth hormone as a means to cross the line separating the huge and the “freakishly” huge, which has led some commentators and former professionals, including Arnie himself, to bemoan the loss of “aesthetic” physiques in favour of ones that are merely massive. (HGH is the reason why some bodybuilders appear to have Darunia-esque bellies despite holding only single-digit body fat percentages.) The candour with which those who feature in Generation Iron discuss the use of performance- and appearance-enhancing drugs is welcome: few things will irritate a viewer more than seeing someone so heavily muscled that they can only waddle try to convince them that their Hulk-like size is attributable to their genes.


The candour with which those who feature in Generation Iron discuss the use of performance- and appearance-enhancing drugs is welcome: few things will irritate a viewer more than seeing someone so heavily muscled that they can only waddle try to convince them that their Hulk-like size is attributable to their genes.


What Yudin also does incredibly well is avoid the temptation to dwell too long on the athletes’ desires to succeed. Such a quality is not so much common as necessary to be the very best at any sport, which is why it makes a far better film to dedicate attention and time to idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, which Yudin’s subjects to a very high degree. Of those filmed, it is Kai Greene who stands out. A talented artist with ambitions to become an actor, Greene enjoys riding the New York subway, masking up, stripping down, and flexing for passersby who seem at once fascinated and shocked.

Generation Iron is, I think, a hard sell, in particular to those whose January gym membership cards are rapidly gathering dust in their wallets. But know that this is a film that isn’t so much about the iron as those that have become obsessed with “pumping” it, and that those who have become the best at the fringe pursuit of showing the physical results of their hard work are charismatic and passionate, creative and funny, and interesting in ways you might not expect.