Two years after the peak of the Occupy movement — enough time to plan a truly zeitgeist-y movie — 2013 saw a bounty of film releases about American excess. The primary complaint of detractors was that, as a people’s movement, Occupy offered no coherent plan to uplift “the people” after the hypothetical success of an ultimately unsuccessful rebellion. One could aim a similar critique — and here it might actually be valid — at cinematic castigation of luxury in 2013. Forsaking subtle critique for a DiCaprio-shaped funhouse mirror held up to the one percent, last year’s films often depicted the glut of the nation with amplified and often under-choreographed filmic saturation, relatively devoid of commentary but for the antagonistic meta-commentary implicit in films that are deliberately as nauseating as their subjects.
The Great Gatsby‘s and (the obviously superior) The Wolf of Wall Street’s statements about grandiosity were made diminutive by the very grandiosity of their presentation. Wolf attempted to implicate the viewer in a circus of lust and revulsion, but personally left me wondering if the sickness I felt leaving the theater actually had anything to do with Jordan Belfort’s ilk. Did I feel gross because I’m entrenched in a society where sociopaths snort cocaine out of buttholes and regurgitate ham after Quaalude overdoses while gradually and invisibly disenfranchising me, while I, upstanding member of the artistic-ish working class, have to consult my online banking statement before buying ham (fine, pancetta) — or did I feel gross because I just saw a three hour movie with so many boobs? Why, further, did I leave the Great Gatsby bemoaning not the Barmecidal mousetrap of the American dream, but rather the director’s Liza-Minnelli-performing-“All-the-Single-Ladies”-in-Sex-and-the-City-2 style of adapting epic tragedies? In the same vein, why, after seeing The Bling Ring, did an L.A. Times critic say that it left her “feeling as empty as the lives it means to portray,” and why wasn’t that a good thing? For a while, I really didn’t have an answer to these questions. Then I watched the premiere of #Rich Kids of Beverly Hills, and I understood.
At the New Yorker, Rachel Syme wrote that even if they did not come out in the same year, these movies would “still be in intense conversation with one another, over a martini and a bloody steak.” But there’s actually an unexpected third party in this conversation, undermining these movies: reality television. The genre has done, is doing, and will continue doing it so much better than some of the noted best directors of our time. Scorsese’s been criticized ad nauseam for inadvertently (or advertently, or who cares) fetishizing that which he’s satirizing, for lingering a bit too long on the tempestuous seas of areola and his all-too-glistening Everests of coke. But this criticism is weak, and needs to be taken a step further. Whether or not his revilement of repulsive greed as immoral is moot; what kills it is that it’s already so prevalent in one of our most-consumed forms of entertainment, and that Wolf’s take is actually less philosophical.
For those of you who have yet to be enlightened, #Rich Kids is a new TV series based on the single-topic blog Rich Kids of Instagram, starring, but certainly not limited to, besties Dorothy Wang and Morgan Stewart. Many of the show’s characters still live with their parents in Beverly Hills (which supports the reality TV fetish for Peter Pan syndrome and the general uselessness of millennials). Dorothy has twice the net worth of Morgan, but somehow, surprisingly, this doesn’t get in the way of their bestiness (though when fellow cast member Roxy bemoans getting “cut off,” the jocularity of Morgan’s retort of “so you’re my poor friend now” is undercut by an uncertain glance from Roxy that leads us to question of whether the intended subtext was “get out, prole”). The two “funemployed” main gals gallivant around Beverly Hills (and sometimes Cabo) during the day before hitting Hollywood at night, treating the less privileged masses as pieces of a dilapidated board game. Waiting for night to fall to drop hundreds of thousands of dollars (and to avoid “groupers,” or “bottom dwellers” looking for “nickels” to sniff out), they traverse their listless days seeking leisurely activities, like #Spending Time, #Manicures, #Lunch, and coordinating a #Blood Drive, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
While Gatsby and Wolf follow American aspiration, reality TV mines deeper, darker territory: no medium right now so candidly depicts half-baked attempts at self-monumentalization like those in which the reputations of the Kardashians, the Shahs, the #Rich Kids, the Real Housewives of Everywhere will forever be enslaved — those which depict their “reality.” Wolf and Gatsby’s dialogue with the American dream is one we’ve all heard before: following the downfalls of varyingly unscrupulous self-made men. But #Rich Kids, and most reality TV shows featuring the absurdly wealthy, are post-American Dream, detailing the emotional withering of the rich in the face of too much ease. What, these shows ask, does one do when they have all the money they need and can languish, and in so doing, suddenly realize, that after all that American dreaming, they’re still mortal? The answer is, of course, right on your screen, where, unfolding in front of you, the existential-crisised-out one percent are attempting to turn themselves into your gods. The genre offers an endless supply of people readily entering into the weirdest form of self-exploitation, and the intrigue herein has been unparalleled and relatively unexplored in 2013’s films on a similar subject.
One could argue that The Wolf of Wall Street is similarly based on “reality,” and reality as written by a man clearly in search of immortality — or at least immortal pleasure. But reinterpreted and seen through Scorsese’s garish lens, its basis in reality seems far too removed. While emulating the ideological void of reality TV (which is actually far more profound than it’d like to think), Scorsese’s expensive antics and meticulousness dull it by comparison. The low-budget flashiness and sloppiness — the exuberant sound-editing (how did they capture the actual sound of an incoming text message?!), hyperactive cuts and constant flashes to Twitter and Instagram — #Rich Kids uses to document high-budget subjects creates a far more effortless grotesquerie than its cinematic doppelgänger.
If there’s one movie from the past year that’s actually bolstered by the insight #Rich Kids and its predecessors provide, it’s Blue Jasmine. While initially I found its examination of class stratification elementary (wealth = Chanel and Saint Tropez, poverty = pizza and boyfriends named Chili), and still find its portrayal of the working class questionable, #Rich Kids has reassured me that Woody Allen wasn’t necessarily being reductive. People like this do exist. And, rather than attempting to stylistically mimic the extravagance of its lead, Blue Jasmine is, like most movies in the Allen canon, visually understated and scored with his trademark anachronistic, growly jazz.
The “plot” of the first episode of #Rich Kids is actually highly reminiscent Jasmine’s ethos, in that she attempts to defend her languid lifestyle by bragging about her philanthropic tendencies in a way that makes it clear she uses her generosity for social purposes; likewise, one of the most fascinating elements of #Rich Kids is the characters’ dabbling in their two-dimensional perception of charitable good-personhood. Like vampiric Robin Hoods, the pilot saw them hosting a blood drive in Beverly Hills, draining their friends (and themselves) dizzy to give to those in need. The whole thing seemed to have happened as spontaneously as deciding to grab brunch. In the indefinite and nihilistic freedom of their every day, these characters seemingly glide between activities, guided, like planchettes on an over-lacquered Ouija board, by the invisible forces of social expectations and those alone. Charity, here, doesn’t only seem like a transparent attempt to self-congratulate (which they do, certainly), but rather, a way to see and be seen.
The New York Times referred to the show as a “document of young narcissists relentlessly documenting themselves,” and both Jasmine’s and Dorothy and Morgan’s socialite approach to “charity” speak to this. The #Rich Kids’ incessant Instagramming — no holds barred on the blood drive — is a testament to reality television’s status as a desperate platform for wealthy people who have little to worry about apart from eventual death and disappearance. Though it doesn’t manifest as worry, the need to prove their reality to the virtual and televised realms suggests just how uncertain the #Rich Kids are that, atop their isolated cloud of comfort, they even exist. One moment in Episode 2 shows Dorothy (the 25-year-old millionaire who lives with her parents) looking for an apartment. Assessing the most crucial aspect of homeownership, she and Morgan position themselves near a window, forcing their hostage (a real estate agent who looks like she’s been holding a lifetime’s supply of vomit behind her teeth after years of selling to Dorothys) to wait as they cutely cock their heads, say, “Let’s check the selfie lighting in here,” snap an Instagram photo, realize they’re backlit, and spend yet another eternity lip-pursing and filtering themselves to perfection.
Wolf and Gatsby seem highly influenced by the utter trashiness of the reality TV genre, resembling #Rich Kids with their respective bacchanalia that reduce Dom Pérignon to André. But when it comes to wealth, the art of filmmaking was, this year, far less trenchant than one of the most artless forms of entertainment. The pervasiveness and omnipresence of reality television, even for those who don’t watch it, is at least in part why the cliché of American films using tawdriness to portray tawdriness seems obsolete: reality television has an unyielding monopoly over the real American horror story, and with #Rich Kids, that’s never been clearer. Whether looking for fuel for the next Occupy movement, or for a companion piece to Society of the Spectacle, one needn’t look any further than E!