“I was born to be a bodybuilder,” says Japanese strongman Hidetada “The Dragon” Yamagishi, and this is perhaps the most benign of a constant volley of motivational quotes in Russian-born and New York-based writer-director Vlad Yudin’s humourless yet fitfully compelling documentary Generation Iron. With a through-line following Yamagishi and six other bodybuilders as they balance their far-flung lives with training and preparation for the 2012 Mr. Olympia contest in Las Vegas (where else?), the film is revealing not only for the prodigious training regimens on display, but the macho bluff and bluster of these very different men—emotionally, from each other, and physically, from the rest of us—who yearn for the validation provided by the crown.
Enrapturing to some and off-putting to others, the sport/show/business of bodybuilding has been the subject of a handful of films, the most prominent being George Butler’s 1977 docudrama Pumping Iron. This is, of course, the film that tracked the rivalry between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno to win the 1975 competition in South Africa.
Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno went on to enjoy success in Hollywood (Ferrigno, in green body paint, was TV’s The Incredible Hulk), and they’re both on hand here: Schwarzenegger to wax philosophical on the sport itself, and Ferrigno to suck up backstage to then-current Mr. Olympia Phil “The Gift” Heath.
It probably wasn’t difficult for Yudin to rope the two veterans into the project, as it appears to be fully sanctioned by the International Federation of BodyBuilding (sic) & Fitness, and is dedicated to founding brothers Ben and Joe Weider. Additionally, Jerome Gary, one of the five executive producers, was a co-producer pf Pumping Iron.
What the film fails to mention is the direct connection of interviewee and co-executive producer David J. Pecker, whose company, American Media, also publishes numerous fitness magazines. At one point he even says “we’re here to give out…” during an interview prior to the competition.
"humourless yet fitfully compelling"
It is the rivalry between Heath and elaborately pony-tailed challenger Kai “The Predator” Greene that gives Generation Iron what narrative thrust it possesses. The men couldn’t be more different: the constantly grinning reigning champ Heath lives in sun-dappled splendour with his wife and small baby girl, whilst brooding Greene inhabits an apparently solitary life in what appears to be a fairly cramped Brooklyn apartment block.
Other pretenders to the crown whose lives and workout strategies are glimpsed include Dallas-based Branch “Quadrasaurus” Warren, Tampa athlete Ben “Pak-Man” Pakulski, Curacao-born, Netherlands-based contender Roelly “The Beast” Winklaar, German competitor Dennis “The Big Bad Wolf” Wolf and New Jersey-based Victor “The Dominican Dominator” Martinez.
It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to connect the constant patter, veering between trash talk and self-promotion, to the faint whiff of desperation in their nicknames, which run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. Yet the more they sweat, grimace and deride, the more of a defence mechanism it represents, giving the film a fascinating undercurrent of emotional conflict. Martinez has the most moving hard-luck story of the bunch, as it seems misfortune follows him exclusively amongst the field.
Nevertheless, these guys make Lance Armstrong look like a humble wallflower.
Spouting such turgid phrases as “the smell of victory teased his nostrils,” Mickey Rourke’s atmospherically narcoleptic narration is a surprisingly snug fit with the proceedings.
Also surprising is that the film was 2013’s seventh highest-grossing non-fiction release in the United States, which may say as much about Yudin’s distribution prowess as it does about the multi-million dollar industry seen at work here. At one point someone alludes to the ruthless backstage politics of the sport, and the irony is it isn’t difficult to imagine similar behind-the-scenes maneuvering during the gestation and making of Generation Iron.