Focus. Concentration. Discipline. These are some of the words used to describe the attributes that every bodybuilder needs, and yet, despite hearing them over and over again, director Vlad Yudin failed to take them to heart when constructing Generation Iron.
We follow the lives of seven bodybuilders as they prepare for the 2012 Mr. Olympia contest, one of the most coveted titles in the entire sport. Early on, Yudin locks in on the tension and rivalry between Phil Heath, the defending champion, and Kai Greene, an upstart who calls himself “The Predator.” Yudin isn’t happy with just them, however. He spends almost the entire film following five other bodybuilders who only matter because they’re also competing for Mr. Olympia. Yes, each bodybuilder has their own interesting take on the sport, and yes, each has a different strategy and philosophy worth exploring. But ultimately, this makes the film feel decidedly unfocused. Yudin tries to construct a conversation between the bodybuilders on certain topics, but most of his cuts and sequences feel contrived and unnatural.
It’s a shame, because the rivalry that both starts and, as Yudin wisely decided, ends the film is engaging, interesting, and speaks volumes not only about bodybuilding, but about the society around it. Kai Greene comes from nothing: he was abandoned by his mother at the age of six, he was pushed from foster home to foster home for the rest of his childhood. Most of the people he forms relationships with don’t stay for long. As Greene puts it, bodybuilding is the only consistent thing in his life.
Greene is brooding, dark, troubled, aggressive, and very, very lonely. Phil Heath is the opposite — he’s confident to the point of being cocky, he has a family and team that supports him, he’s a college graduate, and he smiles a lot more than Greene does. As viewers, our natural inclination is to root for the underdog, Greene, but there is a darkness to his personality that Yudin does not explore. Late in the film, Greene describes his point of view at competitions:
When I was younger, I’d leave the cold institutional facility, go to a bodybuilding show, and I’d stand there on stage with athletes, teenagers that had people at home vested in seeing them succeed. You’d hear a very proud mom or pop sitting in the third or fourth row. And there was you… with no mom, no dad, there’s nobody gonna be sitting in the audience proud of you. But you were proud. And you took pleasure in beating them guys that did.
This is a disturbing, dark, and incredibly interesting statement, one that deserves exploration. And yet, Yudin lets it go, and moves on to the next shot of a man flexing in a tiny bathing suit. Heath may be cocky for sure, and Greene is our classic underdog, but Heath never says anything as interesting as the above statement. He may be kind of a jerk, but he doesn’t feast off of loved one’s tears. Yudin leaves other facts unexplored as well, such as Kai’s street performances where he dresses much as he does at competitions, except with a blank white mask covering his face. He then flexes for passerby, who stare at him like a freak. Yudin’s narrator, Mickey Rouke, describes this as letting off steam. But it would appear that Greene has a lot more than steam he needs to let off.
The other bodybuilders want fame, glory, money, or to make their mother proud. They come with passion, hard work, science, meticulous diets. But none of them come with what Kai Greene has: an internalized thirst for revenge.
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