Charting the Rise of ‘Richsploitation’: Dissolution with the rich and powerful has manifested in a loosely aligned new movement of films and TV shows which aim their scorn at the billionaire class through depictions of their abhorrent ignorance and abject misery. From Buñuel’s movies to Glass Onion, this article aims to chart the rise of this new genre, highlighting its pros and cons and what these films’ popularity say about modern society.
The past few years have signaled further shifts in the highly mutable dynamic between consumers of entertainment and the rich and famous who occupy our screens, and social media feeds. The lives of the fabulously wealthy have never been more prominent. Whether through idolatry or scorn, we live in a new era of mutual dehumanization as the collective experience of the common man and the 1% become increasingly disparate. The rich are there to be ogled at, fawned over, or spat at but never engaged with. We shape narratives on celebrity comebacks and relationships on our own terms, fighting arguments to defend billionaires who do not know we exist.
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In this climate of widening social and economic inequality, ‘richsploitation’ films have taken hold in the industry. If the phrase confuses you at first, just imagine the thematic chain linking Parasite, The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, and HBO’s The White Lotus. All channel an exasperation with the super-wealthy accelerated by another two years of plunder and greed whilst the world was in lock-down. Glass Onion, the second installment in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out series, begins with a hedonistic model living large at an illegal, super-spreading party; the film’s plot, that billionaire Musk/Zuckerberg stand-in Miles Bron is inviting his star-studded posse to a private island draws instant parallels to Kim Kardashian’s 40th birthday bash.
As films funded by the commercialized entertainment industry, ‘richsploitation’ movies tend to stop short of portraying class conflict, unionization, or working-class solidarity. Indeed, there is little revolutionary zest in the works of Ruben Östlund, whose latest film Triangle of Sadness, depicts the friction between millionaires on a luxury cruise and the underlings keeping them happy. However, once the boat crashes, a new tyranny emerges shaped by working-class anger with both the super-rich and the middle management class, which, the film’s coda implies, is irreconcilable. In short, rather than a left-wing firebrand such as Jean-Luc Godard, the recent influx of these satirical, mocking, spiteful portrayals of the bourgeoisie owe more of their debt to arch-surrealist Luis Buñuel.
After years of forging a distinctive path through surrealism, pathology, sexuality, religion, and fantasy, Buñuel, in the 1970s, chose comedy as his weapon of choice with which to lacerate the upper classes. His 1972 film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie toys mercilessly with its central cast of characters, each a uniquely detestable exemplar of corruption, privilege, and sleaze via a Kafkaesque conceit.
Whilst the six protagonists routinely meet to eat at various luncheons, they never are never able to eat the meal in peace. Buñuel’s eye for striking, surrealist imagery here captures the absurdity of an ostensibly comfortable life that can’t be lived without fear of moral or physical repercussions. Not even in their sleep can the characters find an escape from Buñuel’s trickery – as is often the case with surrealist film-making, their dreams are even more revealing.
Rafael Acosta (Fernando Rey), a diplomat for a fictional country about which comically little is known, dreams of arrest and capture, whereas Henri’s (Jean-Pierre Cassel) conscience imagines the ensuing horror when his latest dinner date transpires to be a dramatic performance, and he doesn’t know the lines. Buñuel demonstrates the bourgeoisie’s entitlement and privilege. At the same time, he is also keen to illustrate something that the current wave of richsploitation has honed in on especially: that being rich isn’t especially fun. Just ask Kendall Roy, the mentally tormented protagonist of HBO’s Succession, who discovers the burden of wealth is legal battles and severed family ties.
Despite these similarities, portrayals of the wealthy have evolved to mirror the real-life transformation of class and social mobility. The discreetly charming bourgeoisie of Buñuel’s film embodies a decaying upper class comprised of aristocrats and diplomats. Their existence is made all the more absurd by their irrelevancy in the political boiling pot of 1970s France. When a Maoist radical threatens Rafael Acosta’s life, the beleaguered diplomat exudes the knowing confidence of self-awareness, both in his outmaneuvering of the young woman and in his confession that “I’d even be a socialist if socialists believed in god.”
Unlike the ‘self-made’ billionaires of the 21st century, the antiquated aristocracy is under no illusions that their wealth is deserved. When Acosta claims that it is impossible to fully educate the masses, his voice is almost rueful. The rich of the past were sheltered and cruel but of a different dimension to the slick, glossy exhibitions of wealth seen in Succession. Whilst the divergence between social classes may have grown in the intervening decades, it is also true that the sorts of people admitted into society’s highest classes have changed, notably through the inclusion of tech and media moguls, as well as pop culture celebrities.
Both Triangle of Sadness and Glass Onion present tension within different strands of the contemporary millionaire class. In the former, Yaya and Carl are nouveau riche supermodels and influencers invited onto the cruise without paying a penny; contrast this with Dmitry, the fertilizer oligarch, or the pair of British arms dealers also on board. Meanwhile, Rian Johnson uses his all-star cast in the latter to explore various forms of modern affluence. Edward Norton’s Miles Bron is a tech billionaire, Dave Bautista’s Duke Cody a social media shock jock, and Kathryn Hahn’s Claire Debella an amoral corporate Democrat.
Both films show an evident lack of mutual respect between those who have earned wealth and power through traditional means (business, finance, politics) and those of the ‘new media.’ It’s arguable that Hollywood films are inclined to portray their own in a more positive light, to draw a line between the essentially good and harmless millionaires and the cartoonishly sinister CEO billionaires. Many have contemplated that perhaps the industrialized arm of the American entertainment industry, one inherently subservient to capitalist interests, is not the best vessel to address capitalism’s flaws.
The more successful richsploitation films are those that can balance their cynicism with an empathetic portrayal of the working class. Whilst it’s not necessarily cinema’s duty to offer radical solutions to the world’s problems, they can work to raise awareness and engender sympathy with the suffering of the oppressed populace. Fine examples of this can be found in films from outside of richsploitation’s natural home in the US.
Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite spends time establishing the varied histories, motivations, and desires of its family, familiarizing the audience with their minuscule apartment long before the modernist mansion of their employers. The film refrains from a caricatured, condescending portrayal of the working class – the family’s morality is far from sacrosanct, as they conspire to poison the previous housekeeper to ensure their mother’s employment.
The ability of the rich to undermine working-class solidarity is also the overriding theme of Squid Game, another popular South Korean export, in which those in desperate need of cash are made to fight it out in a series of high-stakes games to see whose debts can be settled. In the series, actual portrayals of the game’s wealthy stakeholders are kept to a minimum, even the head honcho stays hidden behind an infamous mask.
In the episode that they do appear in, they are greedy, perverted, and, most interestingly of all, almost entirely English-speaking. Whilst it would be an overstatement to say that these films are explicitly anti-western, they do not ignore the fact that American foreign investment in Korean ‘chaebol’ (large industrial conglomerates) since the financial crash of the 1990s has worsened economic inequality and that the ability to speak English is a hallmark of a middle-class education.
Bacurau is another successful international example of richsploitation, as in the mountains of northern Brazil, the activities of capitalism are threatening livelihoods directly through environmental damage. Set in the titular settlement, this film adopts the more literal approach of class conflict as defined by gunshots. Viewers of recent horror fare such as The Hunt or Ready or Not will be familiar with the trope of the rich hunting the poor. But Bacurau imbues this narrative with added historical context and the pointed political beliefs of directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, both outspoken critics of the former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. Assisted by the looming influence of spaghetti westerns, the film is a neo-colonial fever dream that takes no prisoners.
What can we learn from richsploitation’s rise and continued prominence? To Hollywood executives, it may seem a sensible business practice – these films and shows give the illusion of transparency and self-deprecation whilst also giving viewers the carnal pleasure of viewing levels of lived-in luxury most of us will never experience. Moreover, the films’ frequently violent undertones can complement popular genre tropes. On the other hand, it could be interpreted as a reflection of the general dissatisfaction with life under capitalism.
The more cynical first explanation may explain why richsploitation films are being green-lit, but it doesn’t explain their enduring popularity. It’s ultimately a sign of the times that the same sort of bourgeois satire perfected by Buñuel in the discontented maelstrom of France in the wake of the May ’68 uprisings is finding a new lease of life in the politically fractious capitalist society of 2023. As it is, richsploitation can be best described as a therapeutic fantasy, an enthralling arena for our disillusion. Still, such films may need to be more politically forthright in the future if they are to galvanize any serious opposition to the status quo.
PS. credit to my friend Stephen for coining the term ‘richsploitation.’
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