A trend in this year’s Oscar race has finally caught up to what many of us have long taken for granted: greed and the pursuit of excessive wealth are now as American as chow mein and apple pie. “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” glorify the role of those in pursuit of this new American Dream, and even when the story takes a turn to punish the hero, as in “The Great Gatsby,” it’s too little, too late. You can’t spend two hours watching a story that basks in the excesses of money and power and rolls in the cocaine crumbs and not secretly wish it were you living that life.
All these films conclude in a similar fashion: the “morality police” show up in the final moments to make sure the audience sees these stories as a cautionary tale. “This is what happens, kids, if you fly too high.” Who are they kidding? We all want what Leonardo’s got. And yet, at the same time, we have political movements such as Occupy Wall Street demanding drastic reform, a chronic unemployment situation with no end in sight, a lopsided economy that greatly favors the wealthy, and the liberal battle cry to tax the rich so that the “have-nots” have more. Yet, if so many of us condemn the principles that these films portray, why are we drawn in record numbers to celebrate this culture?
We’ve come out of the closet to worship the gods of Money and Privilege. We, college kids trying to find our ways, may not have any at the moment, but the fantasy that we might get there one day is very much alive. It’s why the millennial generation, including myself, was drawn to the hit HBO show “Entourage,” which follows the lives of a young movie star and his posse who come from humble roots and make it to America’s grandest stage.
The antics and livelihood of the incredibly rich (fictional or real) have always been with us. “The Great Gatsby” was written in the 1920s, the so-called Roaring Twenties, a time of excess and anything goes, not unlike our own before the Great Recession hit (as the Great Depression hit the “Gatsby” generation). Dramatizing self-centeredness, reckless spending, and dramatic falls-from-grace has always served as a reminder not to forget who you really are. Well, tell that to Kanye West! These days, we celebrate and encourage people to reinvent themselves after a moral or criminal collapse. Get out of jail and write a book, or better yet, sell it to Hollywood. Go on the talk shows and sell it. You might have been born into deep poverty and had a miserable life, but this is America and there are no limits for potential. If you’re lucky enough to have made it out of that hole, you should live as large as you like and demand more. Because good is not good enough.
But it’s one thing to love and fantasize about super-talented people who are super-wealthy and quite another to idolize celebrities such as the Kardashians or the “Real Housewives of Orange County.” These are people who are famous for being famous and are overnight sensations propelled by the 24/7 social media cycle. We feel that we can live vicariously through the Kim Kardashians of television by purchasing their branded clothing lines, cosmetic wares, books, ready-made cocktails, etc. At a family dinner conversation, we might snicker at the absurdity of the uber-rich’s ostentatious ways, but at the same time, we attempt to emulate the way they share details of their more fun, thrilling, sexy lives by tuning into these programs on a weekly basis.
The American Dream revolving around the rags-to-riches story isn’t nearly as relevant in the globalized workforce as it once was, but that doesn’t stop the American passion to live life to its fullest. It’s why hundreds of thousands of America’s middle class students apply to the cream of the crop universities in the hope of a prosperous adulthood, or why poorer parents are saving up for years to be able to send their children to college as a first generation student. Seventeen thousand hardworking college students compete for 350 Goldman Sachs summer internships; other students learn computer programming with the dream of creating the next major social media hit. It’s the same message that inspires young professionals, who’ve made plenty of money early on during their Wall Street careers, to devote the rest of their lives to solving global issues through philanthropic endeavors.
And it’s no coincidence that philosopher Ayn Rand—the author of “Atlas Shrugged”—is one of the most controversial thinkers of modern time because of her emphasis on government staying out of people’s lives in general and out of business in particular. Sharing the wealth, taxing the rich, and helping the poor, she argued, were sure signs of moral decay and the advancement of socialism.
If I had to pick a moment in time when the paradigm of excessive wealth and greed shifted, I would point to the Oliver Stone film “Wall Street.” Michael Douglas played Gordon Gekko, a broker who believed that living large was the new American Dream and proclaimed that “greed is good.” The film dramatized in a very effective way how much the world had changed from the once-conservative ways of Wall Street. Yes, men had always made fortunes, but it wasn’t a near given that they’d go on to marry super models and buy sports teams.
Americans are driven by their addiction to excessive wealth and greed, and instead of fighting this, it’s time that our society learns to become more comfortable with this ideology. Income inequality on a large scale is here to stay, and regardless of how many former Wall Street executives publish op-ed pieces in the New York Times bemoaning the consequences of greed or criticizing politicians for taking bribes, the American people will still be seduced by money’s glorification, both in their own lives and in Hollywood. It’s a fixed part of our culture, and considering that this culture has been maintained despite the economic hardships of the last several years, I don’t see it changing anytime soon.