Zeitgeist film opens with animated abstract visualizations, film and stock footage, a cartoon and audio quotes. The latter include part of a speech by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoché about spirituality, followed by a series of musically synchronized clips of war and explosions culminating with the September 11 attacks. This is followed by a sequence of clips showing war casualties. The film's title screen is displayed, and Jordan Maxwell's Inner World of the Occult is quoted, which criticizes the honesty of religious institutions, governments, and banking cartels which are alleged to "have misled [the people] away from the true and divine presence in the universe." The film's introduction ends with a portion of the late comedian George Carlin's monologue on religion accompanied by an animated cartoon.
Part 1: Entitled The Greatest Story Ever Told, questions religions as being god-given stories, arguing that the Christian religion specifically is mainly derived from other religions, astronomical facts, astrological myths and traditions, which in turn were derived from or shared elements with others. In furtherance of the Jesus myth hypothesis, this part argues that the historical Jesus is a literary and astrological hybrid, nurtured politically in the interest of control.
This section was based on a variety of writers and film makers, including the 19th century poet and amateur Egyptologist Gerald Massey, the mythologist Joseph Campbell and D.M Murdock.
Horus, an ancient Egyptian Sun God, is introduced as having a number of attributes similar to that of many of the religious deities which came after him, including but not limited to
Attis, Krishna, Dionysus, Mithra and Jesus Christ; these attributes include a virgin birth on December 25, twelve disciples, burial for three days, resurrection, and the performing of miracles.
Part 2: Entitled All the World's a Stage, uses integral footage of several 9/11 conspiracy theory films to illustrate how the September 11 attacks were either orchestrated or allowed to happen by elements within the United States government in order to generate mass fear, initiate and justify the War on Terror, provide a pretext for the curtailment of civil liberties, and produce economic gain. These claims include that the US government had advance knowledge about the attacks, the response of the military deliberately let the planes reach their targets, and the World Trade Center buildings 1, 2, and 7 underwent a controlled demolition. The film claims that six of the named hijackers are still alive, that Hani Hanjour could not have flown Flight 77 into the Pentagon, that no substantial plane wreckage was found at two of the three crash sites, that the Bush administration covered up the truth in the 9/11 Commission Report, and that the mainstream media have failed to ask important questions about the official account.
Part 3: Entitled Don't Mind the Men Behind the Curtain, argues that three wars of the United States during the twentieth century were waged purely for economic gain by what the film refers to as "international bankers". The film alleges that certain events were engineered or were allowed to happen as excuses to enter into war including the sinking of the RMS Lusitania (a factor in the US decision to enter World War I two years later), the Attack on Pearl Harbor (which was the opening attack of the Japanese on the US in World War II), and the Gulf of Tonkin Incident (which led to the escalation of the Vietnam War).
According to the film, the US was forced by the Federal Reserve Bank to become embroiled in these wars, not with a view to win but to sustain the conflict, as this forces the US government to borrow money from the bank, allegedly increasing the profits of the "international bankers". The film gives a history of the Federal Reserve, claiming it engineered the Great Depression to steal wealth from the American people and was responsible for the assassination of Louis McFadden, a congressman who attempted to impeach the Federal Reserve Board. The film then goes on to claim that the Federal Income Tax is illegal.