Eat the rich? I watched White Lotus + Triangle of Sadness over the break
and I'm conflicted about where rich hate is headed
I’ve just watched the Palme d'Or-winning Triangle of Sadness and finally finished Netflix’s The White Lotus (series 1 and 2).
You might recall the guy I went on a date with in Athens? Who gifted me the superb phrase, “What a dumb life I love living “? He is a writer on The White Lotus (TWL) and so I felt I needed to experience his art. We are now planning to meet up at the location of the third series, as a titillating aside (I know the location!).
I was busting to watch Triangle of Sadness because it’s written and directed by Ruben Östland who also wrote and directed Force Majeure, possibly my favourite movie ever (the moral wrestling is brutal).
Have you watched any of the above? Please chime in as we go if you have and have thoughts. I’m still forming my own…
Without really giving anything away, The White Lotus parodies wealthy, smug holiday-makers, thus surfacing a bunch of colonial, gender and race themes, accompanied by round after round of Aperol spritzes and other super contemporary tropes. In Triangle of Sadness rich people gorge on rich food aboard a luxury yacht. Things get turbulent and a 15-minute vomit scene ensues as Woody Harrelson’s character (a socialist captain of luxury yachts) recites Marxist quotes over the loudspeaker (along with an obese capitalist Russian guest). They wind up in an existential pickle, stripped off all trappings, and the Filipino “toilet attendant” is the only one in possession of what’s needed at the end of days - grounded things like knowing how to light a fire and catch fish. Symbolism and metaphor abound.
The film is layered with all kinds of modern moral nuancing (does the chick influencer-slash-model pay for dinner when she earns more than her boyfriend influencer-slash-model?). It’s knowing. We feel smart in our knowingness watching it. I hooted with laughter at the outrageousness of the whole train trainwreck. We were actually and finally parading gluttony and wealth! Is this even allowed?!
Working to the same theme, there’s also Glass Onion, which also entails billionaire on a yacht and death, and the thriller The Menu where the rich eat while getting eaten. Both have just hit cinema screens in the past few weeks. I decided not to watch them because, well, I’d got the point:
The ultra rich are on the nose and watching them suffer in their vulgarity is entertaining.
Have you noticed the same? Other examples? Is this what you took from these series and films?
Honestly, I’ve been anticipating the ripening and dropping of all this for some time. I wrote about the ethylening of rich hate and the rejection of capitalism in This One Wild and Precious Life:
As we launch into 2023, it appears the rot has fully set in. Ultra-consumption presents as starkly gross against a backdrop of collapsing ice shelves. And unfairness is being felt acutely now. Globally, the world's richest 1%, those with more than $US1 million, own 47.8% of all the world's wealth. This is up from 45.8% of total wealth share in 2020. Australia’s wealthiest 1% are 61% richer than they were before the pandemic and have pocketed $150,000 a minute over the past decade, according to new analysis by Oxfam Australia. As we wade into economic recession and a raging housing crises, this sense of unfairness will only amplify.
My bizarre feelings amid the schadenfreude
I did not enjoy TWL. The cringe left me with backache. It was the same with Triangle of Sadness. While I delighted in seeing gluttony being punished and opulence presented as a disability in the face of real life shit-hits-fan scenarios; and while I laughed in relief as I realised we’re actually doing this, we’re actually mocking capitalism, I also felt a distinct dread.
I explained it to my friend Jess afterwards, sitting in a gutter outside the cinema.
It all felt familiar, I told her. 1. A necessary discussion is explored in (helpfully) “woke”, knowing terms. 2. Cool vernacular is established (“eat the rich”). 3. We experience relief that this ugliness is being addressed (and that we are not the only one feeling the horrible cringe). 4. And then…that’s it. We park things there and walk out of the cinema. It becomes an instance of single action bias - where we convince ourselves an issue is fixed when we engage in one, ineffectual or otherwise, step to engage in it.
Actually, that’s not quite where it gets parked.
You see, my ultimate dread lies not just in the knowledge that the bulk of us will leave the cinema and carry on spending and glorifying the ultra-rich’s excesses.
It’s that certain bad faith actors (um, rich powerful types) will then ruin the message by…fetishising it and making money from it. I’ve watched it happen with the climate movement. The very people who think they’re above recycling launch some fashionable “regen ag start-up” with investment coin from their mates; six months later they’ve bought the Polestar and are getting the paid gigs on sustainability panels. We have to endure their “opinions”, over the expertise of the low-paid scientists and dedicated activists (mostly women BTW).
Such was my dread I almost resented the film’s attempt to capture the bubbling sentiment. It’s like I didn’t want my anger represented up there on the screen for others to chime in on and make cool or something (and then ruin). I felt much the same when everyone got outraged about the Adam McKay film Don’t Look Up. It became cool to quote lines from it and share the memes, thus cheapening the message (IMO). Likewise, blockchain once excited me… until the crypto bros got hold of it. Ditto Stoicism and ice baths. Know what I mean?
But does this new film trope spell a shift?
In 18th Century France the chasm between the underclasses and the powerful caused folk to take to streets, rise up and storm Bastilles, prompting Jean-Jacques Rousseau to famously declare,
“When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.”
When film makers and film critics and TikTok stars appropriate the phrase today are they pointing to a similar festering desire to revolt?
Of course not. The rich are not about to be devoured.
I asked an American I know what she thought of TWL at a picnic recently. She loved it; thought it was hilarious. But how did she feel about laughing at Americans? Oddly, she replied that she didn’t know what I was talking about. “Oh, but it’s not about Americans,” she said. She’s right in a way (and she’s also doing what some Americans do - worked to the assumption that American is shorthand for Everyone). But it reminded me how we so often cope with uglinesses by creating distance between us and the mirror that held its reflection up to us. This is what we are doing when we watch these rich-hate entertainments. We’re laughing at the ultra-rich being punished for their crass caviar intake and lack of common survival skills because they “are the 1%”. They are not us.
But they are us, right?
We watch unboxing videos. We send our kids to schools that will best equip them to work their way up the standard ladders. We eat too much rich food and waste almost as much of it. We consume our way to worthy things like a “green planet”.
But we so rarely sacrifice. So few of us put real skin in the game and voluntarily choose discomfort over consumption (I know I say all of this often). Instead we declare it’s “people over there” who are the problem. So often I have spoken about climate inaction with self-consciously inactive folk who ask me for the answer, the fix, to it all (as though I can deliver a nifty 3-step hack) and they tell me, “the problem is people don't [insert avoidant sin here]”.
We laugh at the rich being eaten. But it’s a nervous, compromised, dread-laden laugh.
That said, it has all happened before, and things do shift as the cycle does its thing.
The reaction to industrialisation in the late 18th Century led to trade unions and more rights for the underclass. In the late 1980s, in the wake of Thatcherism and Reaganism, Motörhead had a hit title “Eat the Rich” that then became the soundtrack to the 1987 movie also called Eat the Rich about a restaurant that serves the meat of its former wealthy patrons. We also had the Monty Python skit (see above) in which a monstrously obese and rude restaurant patron is served a vast amount of food and alcohol while vomiting repeatedly and finally explodes graphically when offered the “wafer thin after dinner mint” (grand boeufs and vomit are timeless motifs). The way was cleared for anarchy, punk, grunge and other anti-capitalist sentiments and accompanying progressive social policies.
Perhaps it will all cycle through again, as launched by this latest Zeitgeisty eruption. Frugality will be cool again. Netflix will commission a remake of The Good Life (the one starring Penelope Keith about fed-up suburbanites who turn subsistence livers). Once again we’ll quick-unpick the Nike logos off our (second-hand) sloppy-joes. And, for the love of God, we might just stop collapsing wealth and talent and see the excesses of the Tates, Kartdashians and Musks of the world as fully cringe.
While I feel dread, and I want to own my anger (back off bros), I suppose I’m also a bit excited about what social shifts we might be able to leverage from the situation. You?
Hey, I am back for 2023 and will be ramping the conversation here. To be part of the community, you might like to try out the paid membership…