Show Me the Money: Our Complicated Obsession with the Rich

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When we think of our growing propensity for celebrity news or Kardashian mania, it is often categorized as guilty pleasure. We should feel bad about wanting to know more about a group of women who are commonly referred to — unfairly in my opinion — as talentless whores. For some people it’s downright embarrassing that our culture is one that would follow the ongoings of heiresses like Nicky and Paris Hilton back when they were a thing. But there’s a simple explanation that isn’t unique to those of us with an affinity for pop culture: it’s wealth.

The Kardashians become more and more interesting with every new season of their show because they’re getting richer every year. Like fast food, us Americans are obsessed with money. Think about it. If you’re one of the people who shun today’s reality TV-made celebrities, you’ve probably still looked into the careers and lives of Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg — and not because you necessarily want to start a career in business or tech. Another example is the entire genre of rap, which is a testament to just how attractive wealth is to the masses. People buy Vogue and Forbes to read about how the 1-5% are making and spending their money, respectively. Even shows that are mundane and seem firmly planted in the experiences of the (sometimes upper) middle class, like House Hunters, appeal to our desire to infiltrate the experiences of those who are faring better financially than them. Even if you do have a genuine interest in those topics, the reason you recognize figures like Buffett, Jobs, and Zuckerberg as “successful” is because of the amount of wealth they’ve amassed.

Eavesdropping on wealthy people going about their lives seems like a natural progression in our culture. Combine this “natural inclination” with the glossy packaging of wealth on various media platforms has us literally slobbering at the heels of the rich and famous. What they do, what they wear, where they go, who they screw, and what they say are just as important as what’s in their bank account.

To say that we have a money complex is an understatement. Our preoccupation with wealth dictates how we define happiness and success for ourselves and others. It’s an underlying theme in the promises of the American Dream: if you work hard enough, you can have a shit ton of money and live a life beyond your wildest dreams. Come up with something, no matter how mundane or ridiculous, to sell and the world is yours. I mean, is it really any surprise that some people have figured out that we could sell being rich to become richer? This is one of the opportunities stipulated in the same American Dream we were all sold. For middle, working, and even some upper class folks who aren’t quite of Kardashian echelons, following notably wealthy people becomes a way to look into the life that is waiting for us just around this corner or that.

Yet, we still act coy when it comes to some celebrities, while uplifting others. Asserting the importance of creativity, hard work, and innovation in building valuable empires seems to be taken seriously only some of the time. We assume that the Jenners and the cast of Rich Kids of Beverly Hills lack these qualities. Thus we shouldn’t admire them. But if integrity really undergirds our fascination with the rich and famous then how do we explain the millions of us who flocked to gas stations and convenience stores to play the lottery when the jackpot gets high enough? And if we truly disdain those who were born into money then what is to be said about our own honorable desires to give our children the things we never had or at least create opportunities for them to go to schools like Harvard where they rub elbows with those spoiled twats we despise?

Not only do we contradict ourselves when thinking about who deserves wealth and who doesn’t, we prove to be a little extremist in thinking about how the coins should come. Win millions with a golden ticket from 7-Eleven? Great. Come from a poor background and suddenly have an idea that catapults you into the upper echelons of business? Inspirational. Cinderella obviously had more of an effect on our psyche than any of us ever expected. But having parents who were well off enough to send you to a good school and get you that internship that launches your career reeks too much of entitlement. And god forbid you use feminine beauty to get ahead.That’s blasphemous.

Perhaps we reject certain versions of success because they start with a foundation upon which none of us can build. If you weren’t born with a face and body that rival what a plastic surgeon could accomplish, or simply can’t afford the surgeon, then the Kardashian lifestyle isn’t likely one you’ll have. If your parents didn’t establish a trust fund, or at least a hefty college savings account, then there are doors that won’t open as easily for you. In other words, these narratives are painful reminders that the American Dream only works for some people and not others. But even still, we can’t look away.