“Here’s the thing about being rich, okay? It’s fucking great. It’s like being a superhero, only better. You get to do what you want — the authorities can’t really touch you. You get to wear a costume, but it’s designed by Armani and it doesn’t make you look like a prick.”
Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) imparts this wisdom upon the impressionable cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) in the sixth episode of HBO’s Succession, a series about the Roy family, headed by patriarch Logan (Brian Cox), who own and operate one of the largest media corporations in the world, modelled after the Murdochs. Every character on the show is insufferable, to varying degrees — entitled, selfish, scheming. Karen Han described them as “inherently unlikeable to the point that it’s startling to realize you’ve come to care about what happens to them.” As Logan’s children begin jockeying for power as he considers stepping down from the company, it becomes clearer with each episode just how severely he has broken each of them. In many ways, Succession is a distillation of what many of us already think to be true about the obscenely rich.
Succession fits under the umbrella of a larger genre, covering both fact and fiction, prestige drama and reality TV, that you could call “wealth porn”: entertainment dedicated to showing us how the rich live their lives, essentially making the argument that the wealth is interesting in itself. In the Trump era, we seem to be inundated with media about the wealthy — from Billions and Crazy Rich Asians to the USA reality series Chrisley Knows Best and Lauren Greenfield’s documentary Generation Wealth — even while that same affluence feels less chic than ever.
Public displays of wealth seem increasingly gauche in light of the vast and growing economic inequality in the US; many of the rich themselves have a “deep ambivalence about identifying as affluent,” due to what Rachel Sherman, writing for the New York Times, calls the “moral stigma of privilege.” Even Beyoncé and Jay-Z faced some criticism for their “APESHIT” music video, filmed privately in the Louvre, which signaled both capitalist exuberance and political subversion at once.
Meanwhile, the flurry of attention on the primary victory of Democratic Socialist congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reflects how anti-capitalist ideas are being mainstreamed in unprecedented ways — and yet a superhero like Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), a business magnate who’s built his vast fortune on the military-industrial complex, remains squarely at the center of Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe. We are both outraged by and obsessed with the decisions of and scandals weathered by billionaires like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg; we bristle at Musk’s relationship with the artist Grimes, onto whom we had projected an aura of anti-capitalist wokeness. It’s an overwhelming confluence of compulsion and abhorrence.
It makes some sense, then, that money is being confronted onscreen these days in ways that make it seem both hotly aspirational and ghoulishly objectionable. Wealth is not a new theme in movies and television, from Citizen Kane to Gossip Girl — and media based in reality have different aims than fictional storytelling. But the psychopathologies of our time are being conjured in both, in difficult, probing narratives that assert how untenable our collective relationship with wealth is.
What keeps drawing us in? The scholar Diana Kendall, in her book Framing Class: Media Representations of Wealth and Poverty in America, argued that media about the rich tend to make the working and middle classes identify more with the wealthy, and subsequently come to believe that the rich are better people than others. Published in 2005 (the year after The Apprentice debuted), the book makes the case that the poor are consistently otherized in media, and “as a result, it is easy for us to buy into the dominant ideological construction that views poverty as a problem of individuals, not of society as a whole, and we may feel justified in our rejection of such people” — even, or especially, true for viewers who are far closer to poverty than to wealth.
Class representations in media, Kendall says, are filtered through stereotypes that routinely ask us to identify with the top of the pack — the leaders, lawyers, and head detectives — while freeing us to sneer at the lower classes, because at least then we can feel better about ourselves and our living situation. The Apprentice would be the apotheosis of how that hierarchy manifests in our culture, a reality series practically predicated on the belief that the poor are only poor because they choose to be.
Almost a decade and a half later, something like the sitcom-esque reality series Chrisley Knows Best, currently in its sixth season, still seems to fit Kendall’s theory. The show invites us into the Chrisley family’s opulent homes, first near Atlanta and more recently in Nashville. We are given access to their carefully orchestrated fundraising events and luxurious parties, generally welcomed — from a distance — into their version of elite purity. We are intended to feel like part of the family, admiring their lifestyle and becoming invested in their relationships and drama.
Kendall’s argument requires some finessing, however, to apply to our current glut of wealth in the media, and the shifting temperament toward the 1%, which has undoubtedly been reshaped by the 2008 financial crisis and the Occupy Wall Street protest movement of 2011. It seems unlikely that many of the proletariat still believe the rich to be better people, self-made myths and fawning Trumpism be damned.
Newer series like Succession and CBC Television’s Schitt’s Creek — a comedy about a formerly super-rich family reduced to genteel, rural poverty — are incisive in ways that most wealth porn is not. They suggest a space for depictions of excess and capital that are respectively angry and reparative, complicating the idea that consumerism is the only way of life.
The Roy family in Succession, for instance, is a monstrous, backstabbing, beastly unit. Created by Jesse Armstrong, a writer for The Thick of It and In the Loop, the show is characterized by cynical bleakness and an ability to inspire real pity (read: not sympathy) for these squabbling fools. As Gretchen Felker-Martin cleverly pointed out in her review of the first season, “Even the camera seems incredulous toward these people, quickly zooming in during the beats between their unutterably stupid statements, as if it’s squinting to make sure they’re serious.”
Felker-Martin also notes how grimly cathartic this can be, particularly as Succession makes sure to highlight the family’s unfathomable cruelty alongside its stupidity, as with the heartless joke Roman (Kieran Culkin) makes in the second episode, when he bets a poor child $1 million over a softball at-bat, and then rips up the check in front of him. We’re confronted by the sad truth that money doesn’t buy happiness but instead rots your brain, and the even sadder truth that these are the people who govern our lives politically, economically, and culturally.
Schitt’s Creek, on the other hand, views the madly rich as ultimately redeemable. The Rose family — father Johnny (Eugene Levy), mother Moira (Catherine O’Hara), son David (Daniel Levy), and daughter Alexis (Annie Murphy) — have just lost their fortune, all except the small town of Schitt’s Creek, which they bought years before as a joke. At first, much of the comedy is mined from watching them attempt to live in a motel in the town, and failing to adjust to their new situation. But as the series goes on, their dynamics shift, and they slowly begin the process of unlearning their faults and discovering themselves anew.
Unlike the Bluths in Arrested Development, who similarly lose everything but, by design, never grow, the Roses gradually learn to become a family (in truth, they barely knew one another when they had their wealth to distract them). They are recovering — morally, emotionally, and interpersonally — from their past plenitude. (Which is certainly not to say that they reject capitalism; both David and Alexis begin their self-improvement by finding jobs and becoming upstanding members of their small-town economy.)
Shows like this tap into the strange cognitive dissonance of the 99% watching the 1%, driven by both envy and disgust. How could it be that those who say they hate the rich are also more likely to believe that more money will make them happy, and that they aspire to be rich themselves? As we become more aware of all the things we don’t have, through exposure to all this wealth in media (and as the wealth gap has increased), our anger grows — and yet we can’t look away.
Generation Wealth is a new documentary chronicling the materialist and celebrity culture of our times, documenting the consequences of this obsession. The film’s director, Lauren Greenfield, recently wrote for the Daily Beast about the phenomenon of social comparison: “The economist Juliet Schor tells us that unlike the old days, when we compared ourselves to the family next door, who were a little more successful than us, we now compare ourselves to the celebrities with whom we spend more time than our actual neighbors. Keeping up with the Joneses has become Keeping up with the Kardashians, and the American Dream has morphed from an attainable goal, the result of hard work, to a fantasy way of life characterized by self-indulgence, celebrity, and narcissism.”
While this point is argued a little simplistically, Greenfield’s article and film helpfully contextualize these transformations. They’re occurring while economic inequality is at extreme levels, class mobility is halted, and as the internet has changed what we consume, how we consume it, and what effect it has on us. The terms of our exposure to wealth have been upended, and the line between presentation and reality is only more blurred.
Certainly some of the power in watching shows like Succession, Schitt’s Creek, or Chrisley Knows Best is getting the opportunity to laugh at the misfortunes of business titans and spoiled brats. Recalling the divided reactions to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, though, it’s not always so obvious that these tales are cautionary rather than aspirational. Showtime’s Billions, which follows hedge fund king Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), has been praised by real-life billionaires for its accuracy, some of them even approaching stars Lewis and Paul Giamatti to tell them they’re rooting for Axe. Depiction is not endorsement, and the series seems far more interested in illustrating the inevitable corruption and moral bankruptcy that come with absolute power and mass wealth. But you also can’t deny that watching Axe pay for a Hamptons mansion in cash, or shovel hundreds of dollars’ worth of caviar onto a pizza slice, provides a little voyeuristic thrill.
HBO’s Big Little Lies, a clear example of lifestyle porn, seems to be operating on similar principles — providing a glimpse into the privileged lives its characters lead in Monterey while exposing their hidden profligacy. The sociologist Rowland Atkinson suggested to the Guardian that we are turning to this form of escapism for new reasons: “You look at a very opulent production like Brideshead Revisited and that Edwardian era excess had a strong sense of social investment. But [shows like Big Little Lies] present a life that has almost removed itself from society. Staggering wealth now represents the ability to escape, rather than be noticed.”
Crazy Rich Asians depicts this dichotomy in clear terms, as Rachel (Constance Wu), an NYU professor, is made to feel small and low-class in contrast with her boyfriend Nick’s (Henry Golding) family in Singapore, a group of filthy-rich real estate moguls. Their lives are utterly removed from society, secluded and inaccessible in their prosperity, and the film’s key conflict is whether or not Rachel will be able to adapt and fit into their grand utopia. Indeed, (minor spoilers for the end of the movie) the storyline of Nick’s sister Astrid (Gemma Chan) resolves with her leaving her lower-class husband and finally feeling free of her guilt over her wealth, donning the $1.2 million earrings she had hidden from him.
In a time when basic financial security is out of reach for so many people, it is perplexing to find so much enjoyment in media that either glamorizes or empathizes with the rich. Likewise, watching them fail can make them easier to identify with as human beings: I, too, fuck up, so maybe I’m just like them. Yet it’s no secret that the growing divide between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of us is hurting our society, and that they are growing ever more disconnected from the real world.
Ethan Couch, the then-teen who killed four people while driving while intoxicated in 2013, notoriously blamed his crime on “affluenza,” arguing that he didn’t understand the consequences of his actions because of his financial privilege. While certainly a ludicrous legal defense (he was sentenced to 10 years of probation, until he violated that in 2016 and spent two years in jail), it’s a fair assessment of what afflicts a corporate-consumerist society like ours, with individuals across the class system focused on the dogged pursuit of more money and material.
A nation collectively suffers from affluenza, and its media tries to make sense of it all. It’s a tension that, frankly, makes for great drama. What else are Succession and Billions if not gripping narratives about the mass moral ruin of American capitalism, and ways of implicating ourselves in their enticing illusions? Rather than simply marvel at the aesthetic of luxury, as on Downton Abbey or Gossip Girl, in 2018 we are compelled by art that places us precisely within post-recession-era anxiety, from the top down, and highlights how unsustainable this form of capitalism truly is. And maybe, by bearing witness to the barbarism of the Roys or the rehabilitation of the Roses, we can envision an alternative way forward. ●
Jake Pitre is a freelance writer and academic based in Ottawa, Ontario. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Real Life, the Globe and Mail, the Outline, and Hazlitt.