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.”