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Culture, Movies

The Rich Are People Too

by Nas Hoosen / 08.07.2011

Back in the 80s, with ‘yuppie’ consumer culture on the rise, a movie called Arthur hit the circuit. In the movie, Arthur Bach is a billionaire who drinks away his spare time till he finds true love in the arms of a “pauper” and turns his life around. Starring Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli, it wasn’t a deconstruction of anything really. The subtext buried in there somewhere beneath what the movie’s poster called “the most fun money can buy” is that Arthur is not fulfilled by his money or his possessions. He requires something far more emotionally resonant to sustain himself. The power of love and all that.

Warner Bros recently released a remake with British comedian (and the guy officially allowed to touch Katy Perry’s breasts) Russell Brand in the lead. Brand, in a fantastic BBC Newsnight interview, revealed some of his frustrations at becoming rich and famous. It was what he’d always hoped for, of course, but he’s been left wanting on some deep emotional, maybe even spiritual, level. Apparently.

That kind of ambivalence about success meant Brand seemed the perfect candidate for the role of a billionaire-turned-boozy-zen philosopher. (Though the film has been critically savaged in the US and didn’t do well at the box office.) The movie’s tagline, horribly out of step with chronic unemployment in America, was “Meet the World’s Only Loveable Billionaire!”

The concept presupposes disdain for billionaires on the audience’s part. And why should we like them? They are, after all, the tiny over-privileged minority who possess the vast majority of the world’s wealth. We slave away 9 to 5 to afford movie tickets (not to mention rent, health care, food) that promise us an escape into the fantasy worlds billionaires inhabit for real. The can-do worlds of Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne actually exist for Goldman Sachs CEOs and fund-managers, Chinese construction magnates and Steve Jobs.

There is a safe assumption by Warner Bros that we already dislike billionaires because they are filthy rich. The new Arthur movie asks us to forget that and accept that maybe the filthy rich aren’t so bad. Given the kind of social conflict and protest happening increasingly on the planet, with ordinary people rising up against cut-backs and price-hikes, and the breakdown of government services, in Athens, in Spain, in Wisconsin, in countless townships here at home, that’s a highly charged proposition. Arthur will show us that the rich and famous are also unfulfilled and need everyday things, like love, to keep them going. The rich are people too.

The Social Network, based on the “true events” behind the creation of Facebook, gave us the world’s youngest billionaire, smarmily asocial Mark Zuckerberg. The movie portrays Zuckerberg as logical, clinical and decisive in business and life. A super-nerd. He is never remotely warm, charismatic or “loveable”. We are never given any sense of narrative closure. The Facebook CEO’s creepy ethos isn’t justified by director David Fincher, but left to us, Time’s Person of the Year, the viewer, to decide for oursleves.

The Social Network

I left that movie trying to engage with how I felt about this living, breathing, unfeeling corporate entity. Part of me hates that Zuckerberg is pretty much my age and a billionaire. I remember as we drove home afterwards, a friend said, “Ag it’s just business.” The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” started to play in my head.

Writer, genius, comics god, and my personal hero, Grant Morrison, predicted the rise of benevolent corporations and brands. “It’s a natural development and shows what we’re into nowadays”, he said. “Playboys who can do anything they want.” Morrison explored the idea of the benevolent rich in his version of the most beloved billionaire in popular fiction: Batman.

Readers, viewers and cool kids who scoff at Superman accept that part of Batman’s identity is that he’s a yuppie-magnate. We kind of ignore the Bruce Wayne side of the Batman mythos because a caped crusader who beats up criminals at night is just more interesting. Who cares if Bruce Wayne, the CEO of Wayne Enterprises, is loveable, or as charitable as Bill Gates, as long as he’s dutifully zipping himself into the Batsuit? We find him relatable despite a bank balance that would alienate us if he were real.

In Morrison’s comic Batman Incorporated he asks: “What would you do if you decided to do the right thing with your riches?” Brilliantly, Wayne publically admits to funding Batman then offers to bankroll a global network of ‘Batmen’ fighting crime with The Dark Knight’s endless resources. Morrison’s take on the myth exposes anxiety over Bruce Wayne and his benevolence.

Bearing in mind that comics are great at predicting pop cultural trends, it’s clear where Batman and Arthur are headed: they’re going to collaborate to make the world a better place, the benevolent rich are the most powerful of all. We’re being asked to accept the rih insofar as they do/are good.

Batman is a myth reflecting our own wish for power. Is that why we are we seeing so many loveable billionaires in popular culture, to counter-act our own widespread anger at disempowerment, as inequality deepens, and the prospect of home-ownership or a good job disappears over the horison? From Iron Man’s Tony Stark to social media maven Mark Zuckerberg: are we being sold a new line about the rich as a benevolent force for good?

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  1. random says:

    well thought out and and equally well expressed. well done.

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  2. christopher steenkamp says:

    i also wonder what it says about the authors of these fictional benevolent billionaires, are they encouraging a stereo type with prophetic optimistism or celebrating the benevolence they are in receipt of?

    great piece of writng boet

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  3. The Fnord says:

    Nice Grant Morrison ftw

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  4. Nas Who says:

    Christopher: It is pretty interesting to see the cycle continue. I’d say the trend toward making the fictional billionaires more benevolent, though, is relatively new. There’s a really recent interview, also with Grant Morrison, where he talks about our resentment towards people like Bono or Robbie Williams or whatever, and yet how they’re using their money and image to help people all over the world.

    Kinda like John Lennon once he met Yoko and was given some direction in his life.

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  5. FoCo says:

    Great article! This seems to be one of the latest incarnations of Baudrillard’s notion of simulacra/simulation, where we, the “pitiful consumer” gets (s)told narratives which have little initial bearing on truth (not that truth can ever be found). We take these narratives which replicate like memes and incorporate them into our own knowledge and understanding of the world and take something, which doesn’t exist, as real.
    Popular culture helps this narrative structuring and restructuring along since it is the most accessible and widespread form of expression.

    What does seem interesting is that we have been told the story of the spoilt billionaires and “fat cats” time and time again. Now, we are restructuring that narrative but I’m not sure the powerful “they” picked the right time, especially after the financial debacle/atrocity of our very recent history. After all, the CEOs of Goldman and Sachs weren’t prosecuted and perhaps we shouldn’t so easily assimilate the notion of the rich as benevolent forces of good, just yet.

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  6. lauren labuschagne says:

    I enjoyed the idea behind this article and felt you discussed it well. A follow-up piece with perhaps more answers and less rhetorical wondering would be fantastic.

    My anal-retentive attitude about grammar forces me to add that you tend to overuse commas and at times have very awkward sentence structures.

    All in all quite enjoyable though.

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  7. Nas Who says:

    @FoCo: I think there’s a certain tension there between the creative types and “them”, in that one is trying to perpetuate a stereotype (if only by accident) while the former is attempting to restructure the narrative (with far more direct intent).

    We shouldn’t “assimilate the notion” (beautifully phrased) just yet, but perhaps we need to begin perpetuating it so that it, in the simplest possible terms, catches on.

    @Lauren: Thanks. I was hoping the constant rhetoric would open things up for further discussion, here and elsewhere.

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  8. Anonymous says:

    “optimistism” is not a word.

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