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How we view the super-rich: disgusted or envious – or both?

In this post-present, post-gluttony lull, when people contemplate their over-indulgences and all the loot they pulled in over the holidays, it is a perfect (though unintended) irony that one of the season's most anticipated films, Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, was released this past week.

The film, about the rise and fall of disgraced Wall Street broker Jordon Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), was supposed to have made its debut in November, but Scorsese delivered an initial cut at 180 minutes and Paramount executives sent him away to trim it to 165, according to the Hollywood Reporter. In order to be an Oscar contender, it had to run before the end of the year.

It is odd, of course, to be confronted with a movie about excess at a time of material binging, when people have drawn up wish lists of what they want to be given, but it is also highly appropriate. The only troubling question is whether such pop-culture attempts to induce a little shame, to incite a change in behaviour (or aspiration) in anyone (be it the super-rich, the merely rich, the poor or those in the disappearing middle), will have any effect.

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For its part, The Wolf of Wall Street is the latest movie in a new genre one could call anti-aspirational or reverse classism, wherein the One Per Cent are the target of scorn. Certainly, Wolf intentionally provokes disgust about the gleeful depravity of those who just want more, at any cost, whether that be money, clothes, houses, yachts, drugs, alcohol or sex. The movie is one long – too long, if you ask me – parade of lifestyle porn. Enough is never enough.

But just as Scorsese gets us to feel revulsion over the greed of those who are willing to bilk the rest of us, he deftly asks us to think about whether anyone, even if you will never have the educational or liquidity credentials to be part of the super-rich, is immune to wanting to try for entry. In fact, many in the audience when I was watching it laughed over the scenes of drug-taking and sexual orgies. It was entertainment.

You are left wondering if it's possible anymore to make anyone feel shame. Not Rob Ford. Not the One Per Cent. Not even those in the 99 Per Cent who may feel all activist and righteous that they don't want or need the super-luxury life, that it is wrong and damaging to society at large, but, if given the chance, might strive to achieve it, too. Arguably, class warfare only starts when those on the bottom feel barred from being able to achieve what those at the tippy top have.

Aspiration is all part of the American mythology, a point Scorsese makes clear when we see Belfort in the present, working the global business speaking circuit as an expert in sales techniques and achieving the dream of massive wealth. There is a global audience for that capitalist imperative. Belfort still has a place and a voice and a website. He will probably profit from the notoriety this movie, based on his book, will bring.

If Wolf targets that predominantly male drive to rise to the top of the financial heap, Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen's brilliant comedy-drama from earlier in 2013, was an incisive comment on how women – specifically the wives of these criminal masters of the universe – deal with the lure of super-wealth. The film shrewdly questions two deeply held Western cultural tenets – that you must always strive to better your circumstances and that women want success on their own merits.

The scene in which Jasmine, the wife of a morally corrupt financier, meets one of her friends who tells her the truth she didn't want to know about her husband, is hilarious and sad in how it skewers our collective consumerist soul. Both Jasmine (Cate Blanchett at the top of her form) and the other woman wear huge gems on their fingers, which makes you laugh at the characters' preoccupation with Having Things at the same time as it makes you think, "Wow. Nice rock." That kind of bling is what the culture dangles in front of everyone's eyes as envy-producing incentive and, for some eligible women, the mark of successful marriage.

We are all inundated with consumer porn. In Louis Vuitton advertising, actress Michelle Williams looks out from behind her beautiful leather handbag, in effect showing it off, with a coy expression commonly seen on pin-up girls who are putting their best bare assets on display. Is the ad ironic? If only.

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Disgust and envy seem to be the emotions at play in the class warfare now upon us. In Plutocrats: The Rise of the Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, Chrystia Freeland, former journalist and Liberal MP-select for the riding of Toronto Central, gives a sober, well-documented account of the social and political implications of the super-rich who hold an increasing percentage of global wealth. It's the stuff that should put wind in the sails of the populist Occupy movement.

Indeed, it is now part of the cultural discourse not only to criticize the One Per Cent, but to laugh at them, too. Last month, Phil DeMuth, a psychologist and wealth advisor, wrote a satiric piece on about the self-pity of the super-rich. They endlessly worry about their heaps of dough and how to keep it. They can't afford to retire because they earn too much money and the reduction in income would be too debilitating. Entry into the club requires an annual income of about $354,000 (U.S.) and $1.5-million in liquid assets, he noted, and that's only if you don't live in a big city where more would be needed to keep up.

But now have a look at How To Spend It, the glossy weekly magazine put out by the Financial Times in London, the epicentre of the super-elite life. Forty years ago, How to Spend It was just a single page in the Saturday edition of the paper. But as wealth accumulated, it got bigger, too – first as an expanded section and, since 1994, as a large-format magazine.

Beyond the the materialism alone, it's a fascinating read that also provides curious anthropological data on a small, elite tribe. Did you know, for instance, that there is a new breed of "seriously self-indulgent" Cambodian holidays that allow luxury travellers to pursue philanthropic ends? And that there's "underwear for smart men," by London designer Derek Rose, "crafted with fine-gauge pima cotton with a touch of stretch, featuring superfine threads and [a] fabric-lined waistband because, just like you, we care about the details."

Unfortunately, you have to only wish that the magazine is being ironic, that most people who flip through its pages aren't in fact wishing that they could afford that mink pom-pom key ring by Fendi, for a mere $600.

Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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