During the opening credits sequence in Laura Gabbert's documentary City of Gold, her subject, Jonathan Gold, drives through the streets of Los Angeles in his pickup truck. Scenes of bustling street life roll by, faces of every possible color, restaurant signs in a dozen different languages. The sax-infused music that plays over this sequence makes it feel like something out of a gritty 1970s detective drama, featuring the kind of jaded gumshoe who'd say things like, "These are my streets."
But Gold isn't a detective. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer for the Los Angeles Times, and one of the most highly respected critics of any kind in the country. It's not hard, however, to imagine that he actually would say "these are my streets," because City of Gold is, in part, a cinematic love story between Gold and his native city. And it's a positively inspiring example of what it's like to embrace a place because of its heterogenous complexity, not just in spite of it.
There is some "origin story" sprinkled throughout City of Gold, and it's not an insignificant element. Gabbert (No Impact Man) explores Gold's childhood in a home filled with love of the arts, in a 1960s South Los Angeles neighborhood that represented a cultural melting pot his father saw as worth embracing. We learn about his background as a musician and a music writer, exploring tastes that ranged from opera to punk to the early stirrings of LA gangsta rap. The idea that this man would have not just an expansive critical sensibility, but an expansive appreciation for diverse cultural flavors, seems to have been destined from birth.
The majority of the film, then, digs into how Gold's particular history and personality manifests themselves in the kind of places he covers (literally any kind of place, but with a special love for tiny ethnic eateries and food trucks of all kinds), and in the way he covers them. His writing isn't merely a consumer guide for potential patrons, but a travelogue through his city as home to newcomers from all over the world, bringing their unique flavors with them. The chefs and restaurateurs interviewed here don't talk about Gold as some Anton Ego-esque figure whose thumbs-up or thumbs-down is to be feared. They appreciate that he makes a genuine effort to engage with their cultures—and, in some cases, that he's able to articulate what's special about their food in a way they may not understand themselves until they read it in his words.
Yet, there's a more emotionally affecting subtext to City of Gold, one that resonates perhaps even more powerfully in an era when demagogues demonize "others." On more than one occasion, Gabbert speaks to restaurant owners who are first-generation immigrants, proudly describing children who have graduated from college, fulfilling a parent's dream for why they came to America. Gold understands how many of the places where he eats are part of American success stories, labors of love for people who make his city richer because of what they bring to it. When Gold talks about the gentrified changes that have come to a traditionally ethnic downtown Los Angeles market—one where new shops, in Gold's words, offer up their "precious, artisanal" products—you can tell he understands what is lost.
It's fair to say that City of Gold is an extremely generous portrait of its subject. The worst that the movie seems to say about Gold is that he drives his editors crazy by being slow to turn in his copy, and he was even slower to embrace his environmentalist brother's campaign against restaurants serving unsustainable seafood. While Gabbert does include excerpts from several pieces of Gold's beautifully evocative reviews and essays, City of Gold is perhaps too little interested in the actual creative work of a man who is, after all, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.
It is, however, tremendously interested in Gold as someone who shows why, in the age of Yelp, the voices of professional critics can still matter (self-serving though it may be for a different kind of critic to say so). City of Gold captures a passion for food as cultural art, and a love for the artists—the people—who create it. These are Jonathan Gold's streets, and the stories he tells about them say something beautiful about what America can be.