What did the super-rich ever do to deserve the kicking they’re currently getting from their friends and neighbours in the big-budget entertainment industry? With Succession’s final season starting tomorrow night, it’s time to ask why this vulnerable minority are currently the butt of so much on-screen derision and gratuitous violence. Recent cinema and prestige drama has been full of black comedies about the wealthy coming to a sticky end.
Succession follows on the heels of the second series of White Lotus, which concludes (spoiler alert) with the drowning of a debauched heiress following a bloodbath on a superyacht, all played for belly laughs. Recent Oscar nominee Triangle of Sadness sees pampered dullards forced into serfdom by their former cleaner when the tables are turned following the sinking of their cruise ship. The Menu (which shares a large part of its creative team with Succession) brings together a dozen moneybags for a once-in-a-lifetime gastronomic experience that turns out be a last-in-a-lifetime one. Infinity Pool, released this week, eviscerates rich tourists, literally. And so on.
In a lighter register, the Knives Out whodunits poke fun at amoral trust fund kids, self-styled entrepreneurial geniuses and other archetypes of the elite. Some of these dramas are better than others (some are very good indeed), but in all cases the filmmakers manage to have their cake and eat it by setting their moral fable against a backdrop of exotic resorts, fabulous hotels and suspiciously over-attentive servants.
While there are nods toward current concerns about race and gender, the primary focus tends to be on class, status and power. The rich, apparently, are amoral, delusional, shallow narcissists (who knew?). The satire extends to the concentric circles of flunkeys, flatterers, pillow-fluffers and prostitutes who congregate around the wealthy in the hope of crumbs from their table.
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From Luis Bunuel onwards, the “eat the rich” genre has had its own small, subversive niche in the history of film drama. But never to this extent and never quite so close to the centre of mainstream entertainment, as now. Has revolutionary Marxism’s long march through the institutions finally arrived at Beverly Hills and the Croisette?
Does it matter that most of these films are made by people who are more familiar with superyachts, vintage champagne and truffles than you or I will ever be?
Hardly. The charitable view is that storytellers are tapping into contemporary tensions about widening inequality and resentment of global elites. Much of the time, though, this stuff just feels, as an archetypal privileged person might say of the social safety net, unearned. The Menu telegraphs its intentions with all the subtlety of a traffic light. Rather than skewering the pretensions of tech billionaires in Glass Onion, Edward Norton phones in a comedy-skit version of Elon Musk.
At their most memorable, these dramas forsake the gag in favour of the gag reflex. Bodily waste features prominently. In the first White Lotus series, a vengeful employee leaves an unpleasant deposit in a guest’s suitcase. In Triangle of Sadness, the passengers are drenched in their own vomit, bile and urine in a 15-minute tour de force that, once seen, is hard to forget, however much you might wish to.
While it may share many of the same trappings – the fancy locations, the designer accoutrements – Succession is a somewhat different beast, with its family intrigues and power plays owing more to The Sopranos, albeit with better tailoring.
Does it matter that most of these films are made by people who are more familiar with superyachts, vintage champagne and truffles than you or I will ever be? Or that at least part of their popularity is due to their glamorous locations and exotic settings? (Irish bookings are up this year at the San Domenico Palace hotel in the Sicilian town of Taormina, where White Lotus was shot. A room for two will set you back €7,556 per night.) Or that the super-rich, including the Succession-adjacent Murdoch family, seem entirely untroubled by these depictions?
Probably not. It would be better to think of this wave of films as representing an ingenious way of resurrecting genres which had been presumed dead following the collapse of the old-fashioned mid-budget, actor-driven glossy entertainments of yore. In the age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, how do you engineer a mise en scene in which a disparate group of colourful characters are brought together in a visually attractive location? Make them millionaires or, even better, billionaires.
In this formulation, Succession is The Godfather, White Lotus is Grand Hotel, Triangle of Sadness is The Poseidon Adventure, The Menu and Infinity Pool are Hammer horrors. And Knives Out, obviously, is every Hercule Poirot adaptation you’ve ever seen. It’s old-fashioned entertainment with a class war twist.