Why Do The Wealthy So Fascinate Us?

The Breakers, the summer home of Cornelius Van...
A Newport, RI, "cottage." Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been watching, and enjoying, Downton Abbey on television the past few weeks, the story of an impossibly wealthy British family trying to protect their home and inheritance.

Why do we care?

Sure, the production values are high — the home lovely, the clothing meticulously re-creating Edwardian elegance. The servants’ intrigues and gossip mimic that of their employers, but still, what do we find so fascinating about the wealthy?

In an era today that has come to resemble the Gilded Age in its income inequality, where CEOs outearn their lowest-paid minions by 400 percent, it’s so much less…annoying…to stare in awe and envy at their gleaming motorcars, 20,000 square foot homes, billion dollar yachts, jewels and furs and nannies and neuroses than face our own frustrations and challenges.

As the U.S. recession drags into another year, now its third and with no definitive end anywhere in sight, the rest of us seem to take perverse pleasure in gawping at the rich, with television shows like “The Housewives Of...” ever-popular. Not to mention this show, in which spoiled brat daughters suddenly have to…gasp!…work for their money.

One aspect of Downtown Abbey is its timelessness — the family who own it are patrons of a local hospital that bears their name; I live a 10-minute drive from a hospital also endowed by the Rockefellers, whose enormous estate covers thousands of acres just up the road from where I live.

Their wishes have so altered this suburban New York landscape that my apartment building was re-designed — to be lower and flatter — so as not to spoil their magnificent Hudson River views. They even managed to shut down a local train line because it was…too noisy.

I worked retail from 2007-2009, the subject of my forthcoming book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (Portfolio, April 2011).

My greatest challenge? The sense of entitlement the worst of the wealthy carry with them, like some separate form of life support. They slap down their AmEx black cards, snap their fingers in your face, pout and whine when you say “No” to them.

No one says no to them!

Better we should focus our energy and our attention on less amusing sights — like our own work, families and income. After the necessities are covered, our real wealth isn’t material.

4 thoughts on “Why Do The Wealthy So Fascinate Us?

  1. I like to imagine the hours in the day when my simple pleasures are at equal to a Rockefeller, a Gates, or the newly minted Zuckerberg.I can fill a lot of space, most of my waking hours in fact, working in my shop, listening to NPR, taking a lunch with my wife, watching my grandson play soccer. Although separated by several decimal points in net worth, with no yacht in the marina, no second home, and the lack of a safety net if everything in life turned south (why south?) I live this life moment to moment in peace and gratitude. Oh yeah, I’ve gone to the Porsche website and virtually built myself a couple of fantasy cars. And recently, on an after Christmas vacation to Santa Barbara, I fantasized diligently about mansions in Montecito. I just find pretentious wealth and the people who fling it about obnoxious.
    Happy to see Broadside again – been a bit lazy but you know I’m a fan. Tom Medlicott – Redlands

  2. Your life sounds good! I look at those lifestyles and hear that the people who live them are perpetually in a frenzy of keeping up with one another. Booooorring.

    Good to see you back in the ‘nabe. Come visit more often!

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more! I feel a slight distance from period dramas, and positively nauseated by the reality shows about the nouveaux riches all over the world. I would love to read your book about your experiences in retail and your encounters with the self-appointed “entitled”. I can’t imagine you took much s***, though, and I’m so glad about that!
    Sunshine xx

  4. It was an eye-opener indeed to be the girl behind the counter! Book is out April 14; from the UK, you can order it from amazon, I’m sure.

    I actually did take a ton of s**t — until I quit! You’ll enjoy the chapter where I take the gloves off — “Customers From Hell.”

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