Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Acquisitive Self, Minus the Self

Los Angeles isn’t exactly the place that comes to mind when you think of decorous restraint in the display of wealth, even in the dregs of the Great Recession. Here in my hometown, possibly more than in any other outpost of faux-meritocratic privilege in our republic of getting and spending, untrammeled acquisition is understood as an expression of individual will—and more than that, a matter of taste.

Yet for all the studio money sloshing around our bright, stucco world, most of us have never encountered the miniscule stratum of humans that hovers above the rich: the pure, gilt-edged, entrenched, multigenerational wealthy. Movie star money is food stamps compared to oil money, hedge fund money, and even some of that dank old money that still floats around the haciendas of Pasadena. We might have stood kegside next to Kirsten Dunst once, but we don’t know the kinds of rich people that F. Scott Fitzgerald had in mind when he wrote that the rich “are different from you and me”: the Vanderbilts, Rothschilds, and Astors. Hell, our L.A. doesn’t even boast a new-money Midwestern poultry heiress.

We don’t see these types—let alone interact with them—because they’ve largely seceded from public view. This is the guilt-prone social formation that Paul Fussell dubbed the “top out-of-sight class,” because you typically can’t see their houses/compounds unless you have access to a helicopter. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, the top out-of-sight class had been very much in sight; Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and Philadelphia’s Main Line mansions are still monuments to their Caligulan self-regard. But ever since the Great Depression, and its attendant booms in Social Realist art and Popular Front politics, they staged a quiet but striking mass retreat. So spooked out were the über-rich that they became almost discreet. “The situation now is very different from the one in the 1890s satirized by Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class,” Fussell wrote in 1983. “In [Veblen’s] day the rich delighted to exhibit themselves conspicuously. . . . Now they hide.”

Thirty years later, this is still mostly true, but thanks to the exhibition-friendly canons of social media, the scions of excess are back and flaunting it, baby—and it’s an entirely underwhelming display. These aren’t the out-of-sight rich but their twentysomething children, flouting their parents’ wealth-whispers code of silence. With acres of unproductive time on their hands, bored rich kids are using their gold-plated iPhones to post images of their baubles of privilege, their chemical stimulants of preference, and their outlandish bar tabs on Instagram, the photo-sharing service of the moment. It’s a bit as though a Bret Easton Ellis novel has come blandly to life, without the benefit of any irony.

Predictably enough, a Tumblr photo-blog has stirred vacantly into being, to compile all these outpourings of opulence in one convenient place. Launched in 2012 by a founder who remains anonymous, Rich Kids of Instagram (RKOI for short) curates and tags photos posted on Instagram by the likes of Barron Hilton, Tiffany Trump, and other “funemployed” trust-funders. The Tumblr, which slaps a whimsical, intricately scrolled frame around each photo but adds little else, doesn’t come with a explanation or an editorial policy, other than that it purports to show you the lifestyles that the unseen rich had previously shared only with their similarly rich friends. “They have more money than you do and this is what they do,” goes the tagline.

Why should we look? The payoffs for the nonrich civilian viewer are oddly perfunctory. After all of the social mythologies we’ve lovingly constructed to envelop the delusions of the 1 percent, this is the lurid end-of-the-rainbow payoff they’ve decided to lord over the rest of us—a fistful of watches, car interiors, and European spa photos? The content of Rich Kids of Instagram is less the aftermath of an imperial Roman bacchanal than the shamefaced hangover of an especially inane and oversexed (though well-appointed!) frat party. Around about the dozenth selfie featuring a buff and/or emaciated scion nestled into a private jet with a bottle of Cristal and a $10,000 clip of cash (“Always make sure to tip your pilot and co-pilot 10k. #rulesofflyingprivate”), you can’t help but wonder, “Is that all there is?”

The Duller Image

Indeed, in strictly visual terms, the site is hard to distinguish from a luxe Sharper Image catalog—merchandised out, to be sure, but disappointingly clichéd. The rich boys of Instagram—the son of fashion mogul Roberto Cavalli, for example, and a weak-chinned fellow with the handle Lord_Steinberg—post pictures of their IWC Grande Complication Perpetual watches, multiple Lamborghinis, and six-figure bar tabs. Here, all the shiny expensive crap seems to cry out, is what I’ve done with my life in lieu of becoming an adult. The young rich ladies, such as Alexa Dell (of, you know, the Dell computers fortune), mainly document how all this pelf looks from the other side of the gender divide: they snap pics of themselves surrounded by tangerine Hermès shopping bags, eating sushi sprinkled with 24K gold flakes, and holding their American Express Centurion card minimum payment notifications (typically $40,000).

There’s not even much in the way of the makings of righteous socialist outrage. (Swazi Leaks this most definitely is not; that project, by contrast, pairs leaked photographs of Swaziland’s high-rolling absolute monarch with pictures of $1-a-day sub-subsistence conditions in the slums.) Yes, the rich kids seem determined to remind us that they have stuff the rest of us will never have. The captions they post with their photos are, at times, slyly aware of their part in inequality (cf. a picture of a private jet and a luxury car with the caption “The struggle is real”). But for all that, the kids don’t seem especially power-hungry so much as aimless and languid. Behind these faux-provocative posts lurks a desperate clamor for attention that almost verges on a cry for help—something that makes you feel a certain involuntary (and certainly undeserved) pity for these manically self-documented upper-crusters.

by Natasha Vargas-Cooper, The Baffler |  Read more:
Image: Amanda Konishi