In a memorable scene from Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness, the seasick wife of a wealthy Russian manure magnate slides back and forth on the floor of a luxury cruise ship bathroom slicked down by her own vomit. Stripped down to her underwear, she grasps the toilet on her way past it and tries, in vain, to regurgitate into the bowl before the choppy seas send her careening against the wall again. Winner of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or and an Oscar nominee for Best Picture, Triangle of Sadness is one of a number of so-called “eat-the-rich” movies and TV shows that have captured the attention of audiences and commentators of late. Others include Oscar nominees like The Menu and Knives Out, and prestige television dramas like Succession and White Lotus. They share a populist sensibility—the rich are pilloried for their superficiality, obliviousness, and entitlement. They are also usually punished for their sins, if not always in the visceral terms of Triangle of Sadness.
But it’s hard not to feel as if something is missing. Critics have faulted these films for a number of reasons: for pandering to middle-class audiences and caricaturing the wealthy, for engaging in a nihilistic, “apathetic irony,” and for indulging in covetous depictions of wealth (even as the personalities of the rich are condemned, the camera lingers longingly over the fancy clothes, toys, houses, and vacations). These complaints all circle around a more general point: these eat-the-rich movies and TV shows tend to fall short as critique because they lack the moral grounding to actually oppose wealth and luxury. They thus reflect our society’s inability to offer a framework for critiquing the values of an economic elite that is increasingly detached from the rest of us. In short, they have no plausible notion of the common good. Without the recovery of ideals oriented around something other than money and power, antipathy toward extreme wealth devolves into resentment, envy, and juvenile fantasies of revenge—sentiments unlikely to drive either high-level artistic achievement or genuine social change.
Criticism of the unbridled pursuit of wealth is a staple of most philosophical and religious traditions, but Aristotle’s is perhaps the locus classicus, at least in the West. Aristotle understood “true” or “natural wealth” as “the stock of things that are useful in the community of the household or the polis.” He regarded money not as some great evil, but merely as a convenience that facilitates the exchange of goods in such a way that they can be put to better use. But this convenience can quickly take on a life of its own. In exchange, goods literally have a different value—namely, a price or “exchange value”—that they don’t in use. This exchange value can become completely detached from common life and pursued as an end in itself through commerce that aims at increasing wealth “to an unlimited amount.”
He attributes the desire for unlimited wealth to a mistaken assessment about the point of life. Those who pursue unlimited, unnatural, or “artificial” wealth do so for one of two reasons, according to Aristotle. Some desire money in itself because they set their sights “not upon the good life”—which Aristotle defines as the exercise of our practical reason in accordance with virtue—but instead “upon life itself.” Instead of a life aimed at the full development and virtuous use of their capacities, they simply seek an increase of life as represented by money. It’s as if they’re playing a video game and dollars are points. Others who pursue wealth without limit, Aristotle writes, do “fix their aim on the good life,” but “seek the good life [only] as measured by bodily enjoyments” and “the possession of property.” Desire in this case is similarly detached from use, which is neccesarly limited, and becomes attached to unsatisfiable goals: infinite pleasure or property. These goals are, in effect, a way of concretizing the more abstract pleasure of simply having money. In both cases, money is pursued ad infinitum and the use of one’s productive capacities and talents is subordinated to that pursuit. Those capacities are used not for the sake of one’s family or community but are exploited—prostituted in effect—in whatever way makes the most money. Such people employ their faculties “in an unnatural way,” Aristotle writes. “For it is not the function of courage,” for example, “to produce wealth, but to inspire daring; nor is it the function of the medical art, but it belongs to [it] to cause health.”
This “disordered concupiscence,” as Aquinas calls it, is a form of escapism or addiction: the mega-rich pursue money not for what it can do but for the feeling it provides, just as an opioid addict might stop taking Oxycontin for pain relief and start taking it just for the high. (It’s worth noting that this addiction to accumulation and luxury is increasingly built into the economy itself: entire industries—for example, the airline industry, which makes more money from its frequent-flyer programs than its core business—now view the provision of their services as secondary to operations aimed purely at increasing profits through financial manipulation.)
Eat-the-rich productions tend to portray the rich as disconnected and arrogant, but they rarely seem to question whether the perquisites of wealth are really enviable. In Succession, when an adjunct of the Roy family (based on News Corp’s Murdochs) tries to explain to a distant cousin who is trying to join their ranks what it’s like to be rich, he sounds as manic as a drug addict. “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.” On the question of whether or not being rich is “fucking great,” eat-the-rich productions are decidedly ambivalent. Wealth is made to look glorious and desirable—with the exception of Triangle of Sadness and its disastrous cruise—even as the behavior of the wealthy is portrayed as outrageous. The suggestion is simply that these particular rich people don’t deserve their riches, not that their outrageous behavior might simply be a product of the place that money has in their lives. These films thus sustain a fantasy in viewers that “if I were that rich, I’d be different.”
Eat-the-rich movies and shows do capture the ways the wealthy pervert their talents and distort their relationships, but the critique here tends toward caricature. In Triangle of Sadness, Yaya, a model and “influencer,” exploits her beauty in a familiar way—by turning her everyday life into an endless, highly staged photoshoot. At one point she poses with her mouth open and spaghetti twirled around her folk while her boyfriend Carl takes photos, only to push the food aside once she’s posted the photos—she’s gluten intolerant. Her exploits land her and Carl on a free luxury cruise with much wealthier guests, including an English arms dealer who complains about how much UN regulations against landmines cost his “family business,” which is engaged in “upholding democracy all over the world.” At one point, the manure monopolist’s wife, seeking connection with the crewmember pouring her champagne, tells her that “everyone’s equal” and then essentially forces the whole crew to indulge themselves and go for a swim to prove it. Meanwhile, in White Lotus, a philandering, sex-addicted husband hoping to reconcile with his wife buys his son’s support in the effort by giving 50,000 euros to a prostitute scamming (and servicing) both of them. This supercharged monstrousness amounts, as Max Cea writes, to “making cinema out of Twitter dunks.” Rather than fleshed-out characters enmeshed in a morally compromised situation of their own creation, we are given set pieces with two-dimensional villains. Money itself falls away as a target of critique in order to produce in the audience the same smug sense of moral superiority available on social media.
These productions mostly fail to offer any robust alternative to the ethos of the super-rich. In Triangle of Sadness, a Marxist drunk, played by Woody Harrelson, babbles about class warfare into the ship’s PA system as the wealthy guests vomit up their fancy dinner. (It’s unclear whether he’s intended to be a wise fool conveying the film’s socialist message or simply a symbol for the futility of resistance.) In White Lotus, a newly wealthy couple, Ethan and Harper, initially resist the crasser tendencies of their wealthy friends, Cameron and Daphne. “Nothing much has changed,” Ethan tells them when asked about the windfall he banked after selling his tech start-up. “We’re not very materialistic,” Harper adds, before discussing the foundation she wants to start. Daphne responds by explaining that she sometimes overspends on good causes when she sees pictures of “neglected children or babies or abused animals” online after she’s had too much to drink. She thus tries to associate Harper’s charitable impulses with her own vain and superficial purchase of moral indulgences. As the season goes on, Ethan and Harper are seduced, in all senses of the word, into Cameron and Daphnes’ amoral worldview. The show’s creators treat Ethan and Harper’s gradual corruption matter-of-factly; by the end, it even seems to have brought them closer together as a couple.
Significantly, when the rich do get their comeuppance in these productions, it’s the result of some external or even accidental force: a deranged chef in The Menu; a clever detective and heroic nurse in Knives Out; choppy seas and a pirate attack in Triangle of Sadness. There is little or no sense that the pursuit of excessive wealth breeds its own form of punishment. Indeed, the creators seem to feel a need to visit some kind of catastrophe on the clueless rich precisely because they are otherwise getting away with it. The trouble is not the emptiness of luxury nor the degradation of life when every aspect of it is reduced to money; no, the trouble is that the luxuries are being enjoyed by the wrong people. Meanwhile, the audience goes largely unchallenged: we get to indulge vicariously in the trappings of great wealth while also indulging in the Schadenfreude of seeing the rich beclown themselves and suffer spectacularly.
It’s worth comparing this newer spate of films with Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Steet, a movie that revels in excess and vicarious thrills but also belongs to an older genre of films about downfall—including Diamond Jim, Citizen Kane, There Will Be Blood, and gangster films like Scarface—that take the logic of unlimited accumulation to its inevitable conclusion. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese endears Leonardo Di Caprio’s Jordan Belfort to the audience and has us rooting for him even as he spirals into a cycle of greed, addiction, and exploitation. We don’t watch and judge his antics from a comfortable distance but see in him an uncomfortable reflection of our own worst instincts. His downfall is cause for self-reflection rather than a crass self-satisfaction that echoes the vanity of the rich themselves.
In 1936, Ernest Hemingway faulted F. Scott Fitzgerald in a short story for his “romantic awe of [the rich],” whom he, according to Hemingway’s narrator, saw as “a special glamorous race.” To Fitzgerald’s claim that “the rich are different from you and me,” Hemingway has someone retort simply, “Yes, they have more money.” The eat-the-rich films indulge in a simple reversal of Fitzgerald’s imputed romanticism. Instead of gods, the rich are monsters; either way, they’re not like us. But the truth is that the rich are special only insofar as their wealth makes them the vanguard of consumption and the psychological ills that go with it—narcissism, disconnection, loneliness, and an increasing embrace of a fully automated, abstracted world that, far from representing the good life, is something like a living death.