Within the critically lauded, awards-festooned HBO drama Succession, a bunch of billionaire siblings vie with each other to win the favour of their media mogul father, who’s one half Lear to 2 components Rupert Murdoch. The Roy household’s psychodrama unfolds towards a backdrop of opulent places, from gleaming city homes and stylish nation piles to the household’s gargantuan superyacht.
The Roys’ view of the world is neatly summed up by one in every of their quantity, Tom, performed by Matthew Macfadyen. “Right here’s the factor about being wealthy,” he says. “It’s fucking nice. It’s like being a superhero, solely higher. You get to do what you need — the authorities can’t actually contact you. You get to put on a fancy dress, nevertheless it’s designed by Armani and it doesn’t make you seem like a prick.”
When it debuted in 2018, Succession felt uncommon within the very damaging portrayal of its ultra-loaded protagonists. The place earlier wealth-obsessed productions — from The Wolf of Wall Avenue and Loopy Wealthy Asians to the Dallas and Dynasty reboots — had their heroes and villains, the world of Succession is inhabited solely by the latter, every of them extra venal, self-interested and emotionally stunted than the final.
4 years later and Succession is now not an outlier in presenting a crucial portrait of the rich. Latest movies similar to The Forgiven, starring Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain as moneyed travellers who wreak havoc in Morocco, and Netflix’s I Got here By, by which Hugh Bonneville’s excessive courtroom decide hides a bloody secret, present the moneyed elite exploiting their standing to insulate themselves from the results of their actions. And this month brings a brand new ITVX/Amazon Studios sequence, Riches, a few household of rich black Londoners headed by Hugh Quarshie’s self-made patriarch. When Quarshie’s character suffers a stroke, the kids from his two marriages go to warfare over the way forward for his empire.
Anybody who has seen the 1946 movie It’s a Fantastic Life, by which James Stewart’s George Bailey takes on a city’s callous moneylenders and wins, will inform you that heaping scorn on the wealthy is just not a brand new factor within the leisure enterprise. However the sheer variety of productions presently difficult the social and financial establishment, and exhibiting the super-rich as feckless and merciless, suggests an actual anger at a world the place the richest 10 per cent personal three-quarters of world wealth, and rampant inflation in meals and vitality costs is hitting the much less well-off the toughest.
Lucy Prebble, a author and an govt producer on Succession, notes that the seeds of the sequence had been sown after the election of Donald Trump as American president in 2016, when “the US went from a politics of slick, thrilling optimism into one thing merciless and base and regressive — a form of innocence was misplaced”. Consequently, she says, the sequence’ makers calculated on audiences being “extra open to a cynical and fewer aspirational tackle the highly effective”.
For Abby Ajayi, showrunner of Riches, the shift in how screenwriters view the rich originates in additional pervasive monetary insecurity, particularly among the many younger. It’s the results of “the realisation that, as millennials, now we have no pensions and we will’t purchase homes. The issues that we as soon as anticipated to have, and our dad and mom’ technology anticipated for us, are now not there. So [we] are extra crucial concerning the outsized billionaire class — like, who wants that a lot cash?”
Which isn’t to say that Riches is just not aspirational. Ajayi, who lives in Los Angeles, was born in London, the daughter of Nigerian immigrant dad and mom. “From an immigrant perspective, wealth, together with training, is a method by which you acquire stability, safety, management and acceptance,” she says. “Writing Riches, I used to be taken with what wealth in up to date Britain appears to be like like, and what it appears to be like like in a black household the place it isn’t about generations of safety. That is first-generation cash, so the proximity to the place it got here from, and the worry of dropping it, remains to be very current.”
It’s one factor, in fact, to revel within the spectacle of wealthy individuals tearing chunks out of each other, however one other to look at the affect of their actions on different individuals of their orbit. Within the Palme d’Or-winning movie Triangle of Disappointment, the billionaire passengers of a luxurious yacht are shipwrecked on a desert island alongside the employees who, simply hours earlier than, had been cooking their meals and cleansing their bogs. No prizes for guessing who demonstrates higher survival expertise.
October introduced the return of The White Lotus, the massively profitable HBO drama sequence that views the spoilt, narcissistic visitors of a luxurious resort by way of the eyes of the desk clerks, waiters, beauticians and cleansing employees paid to take care of them. Viewers of the primary sequence will recall its startling denouement by which Murray Bartlett’s stressed-out resort supervisor emptied his bowels right into a visitor’s suitcase.
However, if that sounds excessive, it’s nothing subsequent to what the dirt-poor protagonists of Parasite, the Oscar-winning movie by the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, did after conning their method into the pristine, ultra-modern house of a high-flying businessman.
Do the wealthy actually deserve such blanket opprobrium, although? Is it potential that the pendulum has swung too far towards those that have, whether or not accidentally of beginning or from good enterprise selections, made a hit of their lives? The director and screenwriter Julian Fellowes says the present crop of dramas faucet into what he sees as “a unconscious need in many individuals to imagine that the wealthy and profitable are in some way morally missing — they haven’t any style, they haven’t any values — after I would say that ethical values are fairly evenly distributed amongst each degree of society.”
Fellowes is greatest identified for his rose-tinted Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century evocations of the British aristocracy in sequence similar to Downton Abbey and Belgravia. He says “the wealthy up to now will be seen as a part of a sort of pyramid construction that gave everybody a job to do, and the wealthy who did their job are thought of basically good”.
“However I might argue that the identical is true in the present day. I do know loads of wealthy individuals who need to do good, the place their very own obligations are involved, but in addition with causes affecting most people. The concept they’re all egocentric and self-serving is solely unfaithful, however will be traced to a broadly shared want that anybody actually profitable have to be poor as a character and ideally depressing.”
Prebble, then again, has no qualms about reducing the rich right down to dimension — she needs to chip away on the attract of the company path to getting wealthy. Jesse Armstrong (Succession’s creator) and the artists who make the present “are taken with a form of pathetic cowardice and gray disdain that permeates the company world — one thing that sector desperately tap-dances to cover”, she says.
“If we will make the lifetime of finance or banking or consulting appear extra like what it’s — an amoral talent-drain of younger individuals processed right into a graduate life that may financially reward them however not truly fulfil them — then I’m pleased.”
There may be, in fact, a sensible motive for having wealthy characters in status drama, nevertheless we could really feel about them. “Setting your story amongst women and men with cash means fantastic backgrounds, marvellous garments, and a visible feast, which is a part of the enterprise of display leisure,” says Fellowes.
Prebble additionally notes that wealth “is usually a little bit of a trick to boost the stakes”. The wealthy are typically highly effective, “which provides their actions, and inactions, larger stakes, on a world scale, as a result of what they do impacts so many people”.
“In Shakespearean instances, you would possibly discover a human flaw or tragic frailty by way of a royal character. These days, that is likely to be extra prone to be a CEO or tech overlord. I feel the delight some individuals discover with Succession is how ugly, petty and sad the lives of the mega-wealthy will be. Being pushed to have and hold huge quantities of cash, even when you might have sufficient, reveals a sure form of character to start with.”
And, whether or not these persons are accumulating cash or dropping it, we will’t cease watching them — HBO reported a median of 6.1mn viewers globally of the final season of Succession whereas the primary season of The White Lotus was watched by 7mn. Rampant wealth is inherently fascinating, even — and maybe particularly — for individuals who don’t have it. It appears that evidently, whereas most of us are pleased to see the super-rich taken down a peg or two, we’re not above mere rubbernecking.
Actuality tv way back developed its personal voyeuristic sub-genre, generally known as “wealth porn”, an early instance being the nakedly covetous Life of the Wealthy and Well-known, which launched within the Eighties. Extra not too long ago, one of the vital standard sequence on Netflix within the early months of the pandemic was Promoting Sundown, a overtly trashy present about realtors at a luxurious brokerage in Los Angeles who repeatedly snag six-figure commissions for a single sale, and which mixes high-end property with outré vogue.
Ajayi notes there’ll all the time be exhibits made about very wealthy individuals, “as a result of there may be nonetheless that curiosity [about how they live], and since placing that gloss on display brings audiences. It’s a love/hate relationship actually”.
“We’re having fun with watching the accoutrements of wealth and energy, however now we’re additionally seeing these individuals having the rug pulled out from below them. Which is enjoyable, actually, as, up to now, these individuals all the time received of their world.”
‘Riches’ is on ITVX within the UK and Prime Video within the US and Canada. The second season of ‘The White Lotus’ is on HBO within the US and Sky Atlantic/Now within the UK. ‘Succession’ returns to HBO and HBO Max within the US and Sky Atlantic/Now in spring 2023
This text is a part of FT Wealth, a bit offering in-depth protection of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, household places of work, in addition to various and affect funding