The rich make me sick. I hate them. It seems fair to me to blame the rich for most of the messes, major and minor, the world is in right now. I’m talking about the rich people who dominate the federal government (alas, you virtually have to be rich to run for either house of Congress these days) and, of course, the rich people who own the media.
(On these grounds, and though it’s a tough call, I would tend to root for James Gandolfini of The Sopranos in his current contract dispute with HBO. He makes a much more sympathetic figure than AOL Time Warner does.)
Hating the rich would seem to be a healthy attitude for a citizen of an ostensibly egalitarian nation founded by a bunch of rag-tag have-nots who kicked some snooty fops’ butts.
But here in new-millennium 21st-century wealth-worshiping America, resentment against the rich doesn’t seem common at all. Instead, people of meager means and poor prospects get some weird masochistic kick out of pressing their noses against windows of rich people’s glass houses and peering in-something they can do vicariously by pressing their noses against the glass wall of the television screen.
No matter how many studies and statistics show the gap between rich and poor in America getting wider, viewers still flock to shows like Entertainment Tonight and its half-brother Access Hollywood to gape at frivolous half-wits who’ll spend thousands of dollars for an “outfit” and the jewelry to go with it. Younger viewers, who by nature ought to be resentful of the establishment and its wealth, tune in MTV programs that show in sickening detail the luxuries accrued by assorted punks, toughs, thugs and sluts, most of whom are anything but shy about displaying their loot.
People magazine, always in the forefront of stargapers, recently published its annual Who-Makes-What issue. Oprah Winfrey is now worth a billion bucks, People says. But hey, she’s a big-time “humanitarian” and she reportedly gives lots of it away. She puts a lot back into the community too-her community being the Chicago Gold Coast, where her gazillion-dollar condo is. Actually, we shouldn’t pick on Oprah since she does seem to remember coming up from poverty and apparently makes an honest effort to share the wealth.
Jerry Seinfeld’s fortune now totals around $500 million, People says. Kelsey Grammer gets $1.6 million for each new episode of Frasier, a role he could now play in his sleep and sometimes appears to be. Ray Romano got a raise to $800,000 per episode of Everybody Loves Raymond this season and the producers, says People, made the raise retroactive to two seasons back. Good Lord, good grief, good gravy.
Does anybody really love Raymond that much?
Meanwhile that angry young man Eminem, so full of bitterness and resentment and memories of a troubled and impoverished youth, made $14.5 million last year on one tour alone, never mind all the CDs and cassettes with his pouty-mouthed puss on their covers. Eminem suffers mightily for his art, or so he keeps telling us. I wonder if he has a Bentley Turbo or just a regular one.
Of course, there’ve always been sinfully rich people willing and anxious to advertise their status-and a willing audience. As Zero Mostel shouts in The Producers when he sees a rich guy on the street, “Flaunt it, baby, flaunt it!” So people apparently don’t begrudge Adam Sandler’s or Julia Roberts’ getting paid $20 million a movie, no matter how dreadful they or their movies may be.
But you’d think there would have been some kind of major public outcry over the rash of stories about crooked corporate executives ripping off employees, shareholders and the public and flouncing off with billions as a reward. The stories keep coming. Last October, Fortune magazine reported that newly installed Kmart CEO James Adamson was enjoying “rich perks and a $4 million pay package,” even as Kmart “slid toward bankruptcy, and handed out millions in dubious loans to top executives.”
Although Adamson resigned in January, Fortune says, he still stands to collect another $3.6 million when Kmart emerges from Chapter 11 in the coming months-just about the time that 35,000 lower-level Kmart employees are fired. They have no golden parachutes and will be compensated with “next to nothing.”
We’ve all read about innumerable similar cases and seen Brian Ross’s devastating reports on ABC News: captains of industry who leave sinking ships via their private yachts and with an implicit “So long, suckers” to those left behind. Meanwhile, go two months without making a payment on your credit card bill (perhaps because you have been laid off), and your credit card company will do everything but have your house surrounded by a SWAT team to get its money.
And yet people don’t get mad. They don’t even seem all that resentful. The Filthy Rich don’t even have to endure healthy public ridicule, or at least not much of it. If a movie star wears a tacky dress to an awards show, she’ll suffer catty barbs from Joan Rivers, but those bounce right off.
No, the rich aren’t being ridiculed, but the poor are. Witness Bumfights, a best-selling video that has made multimillionaires of some young capitalist smart-asses in Southern California. The rich kids induced desperate homeless men to hit, beat and even maim one another for the benefit of the camera, then sold the tapes on a Web site at 20 bucks a pop. Surely there’s a way that one or more of the networks can turn this concept into a hit series.
Regardless, and despite the fact that the young entrepreneurs are being sued by two of their pathetic battered victims, Bumfights II will be on sale soon.