Arts and Entertainment

rich people = bad?

A commentary on the recent influx of films satirizing the wealthy.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Gabriel Gutierrez

          Hollywood will eat the rich in 2023. Every Oscar season, the film industry makes an earnest effort to care about the world, offering new films themed around social justice. Last year, Netflix spent $75 million to produce the star-studded Don’t Look Up (2021), a lukewarm take on the burning planet and media sensationalism, which generated praise and criticism alike for its shallow message to stop climate change. With growing contempt for late-stage capitalism and the popularity of influencers coming out of the pandemic, woke Hollywood has set its sights on a new target: bad rich people. Ostentatious wealth has always been a reliable plot device, with box-office stars like Fight Club (1999) and V for Vendetta (2005) portraying working-class underdogs “sticking it to the man.” This trope has lost some of its impact in the past year due to the flood of films and TV shows unsuccessfully exploring it with bigger budgets and milder takes on the ills of capitalism.

          This year’s overwhelming outpour of media critiquing the rich has one clear explanation: COVID-19. With the entire world stuck at home and the economy in shambles, the disparity between the working class and the uber-rich was italicized, underlined, and bolded. While Amazon’s profit was increasing by 220 percent, essential workers were risking the health of their entire families to make enough money for groceries. The top 10 percent went from owning half of the wealth in the world to three quarters, while the bottom 50 percent’s share plummeted. With the curtain raised, the average person is now aware of the immense socioeconomic divide in our country. Recognizing this, Hollywood has pounced on the opportunity to appeal to this demographic with a plethora of new movies satirizing the excess of wealth.

          The newest of these films is British director Mark Mylod’s menacing dark comedy, The Menu (2022). A clan of rich patrons, including food critics, finance bros, and fading celebrities, arrive on an island expecting an avant-garde restaurant experience; but their night deteriorates into a murder scene as the psychopathic chef (Ralph Fiennes) meticulously punishes his clientele. The increasingly deranged events are framed as courses on the menu, but it becomes clear that the wealthy will be the ones on the chopping block by the end of the night—their punishment for commodifying the food industry. In forcing the upper class to atone for their sins, the movie attempts to recognize service workers during the pandemic, caught between making ends meet and supporting a society falling apart at the seams. However, this attempt at appealing to the little guy by pointing out the ridiculousness of the upper class should have been carried out in a much more nuanced manner than the half-witted insights that were produced. The film is nothing more than a hallucinatory revenge plot stating its distaste for the lack of creativity in luxury restaurants.

          In addition to The Menu, 2022 also saw the release of Rian Johnson’s highly anticipated Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Ruben Östlund’s grotesque Triangle of Sadness, and season two of HBO Max’s The White Lotus. Each of these projects depicts the dangers of opulence—ignorance, entitlement, greed, etc.—in the age of influencers and performative political correctness. The influx of these films is deeply ironic and even hypocritical, as it is the incredibly affluent film production companies (such as Netflix, HBO, and Lionsgate) that are producing these “socially aware” satires. These films have undeveloped, one-dimensional plots—the rich are the enemy and the underdog middle class rebelling against the system is the hero. But this copy-and-paste approach fails to actualize any substantive assessment of social hierarchy, as the plot must remain tame enough to be marketed to all audiences—including the hyper-wealthy. These films ultimately make no effort to address realistic poverty and exploitation since producers are aiming to deliver a blockbuster, not a brainbuster.

          However, portraying wealth inequality in film is possible. In stark contrast with the abundance of rich-misfortune movies in 2022, director Bong Joon-Ho’s record-breaking Parasite (2019) was a monumental display of class struggle. The film follows the son of a poor family who has recently secured a job working for an ultra-rich household; slowly but surely, he guarantees positions for his entire family. A dark truth is discovered in the basement of the residence, ultimately leading to the realization that the poor family could never truly climb the social ladder. Intentionally weaving in commentary on issues like the struggles of socioeconomic mobility, Parasite presents a compelling narrative with elaborate symbolism requiring multiple viewings to fully digest. The disparity between the rich and poor is well-crafted and provides a genuine critique of class hierarchy.

          Despite a wholehearted attempt to destroy the top one percent, the influx of new anticapitalist films presents as incessant schadenfreude. Many of these films fail to do anything more than point and laugh at the wealthy; their shallow observations are predictable given the inherent hypocrisy of multibillion dollar film companies producing movies about the stupidity of rich people. While they can certainly be enjoyable, these films are biting at best, and more often than not egregiously shallow. If anything, the target audience for these faux-Marxist movies may actually be the awful one-percenters in their crosshairs.