Rich People Should Be Less Boring

My family often drove around California. Our vacations usually consisted of my mom, my dad, my sister, and I piling into a car and heading to Lake Tahoe or Big Sur or Yosemite. I hated the vapid consumerism of my upper middle class California suburb, but the surrounding nature made it worth it. The ocean, the deserts, the forests, the mountains, the waterfalls, the trees. I felt in awe of the natural wonders just a car ride away.

On one of these trips, we stopped to see a different kind of wonder. The Hearst Castle in San Simeon is the former estate of newspaper mogul and Citizen Kane-inspiration William Randolph Hearst. It now functions as a grand museum, showing his collection of art and the elaborate architecture of the building itself. Was this the goal? Was this level of immense wealth what all the relatively rich but not rich enough people in my suburb were striving to achieve? As my tiny child frame was consumed with the grandness of the estate, I thought I could maybe understand the appeal — at least more than the Juicy jackets my sister and her friends coveted with such passion. The Hearst Castle was a work of art and contained so many works of art. It seemed like the prize of royalty.

But a couple years later I watched Citizen Kane, saw the misery of Hearst, and the way even the most elaborate castle can become a cage. If this depiction was true to Hearst, his own creation filled him with none of the wonder it had filled in me.

Tonight is the Met Gala, a fundraiser for the Met’s Costume Institute that has become known to us regular non-attendees for its red carpet looks. Each year a theme is selected to align with the institute’s current exhibition — like “camp” or “Catholic.”

Like many, my feelings about the Met Gala are complicated. At its best it can be a celebration of fashion and unattainable beauty. Celebrities are always trying to sell us products, but at the Met Gala the art objects are beyond purchase. They aren’t even owned by the people themselves, let alone us plebeians at home. It feels less aspirational than it feels otherworldly. It’s a reminder that what we put on our bodies — and even our bodies themselves — can be art. It’s creative expression that can only occur on a grand scale, like the castle of a sad tycoon or a $200 million movie that uses its budget well.

But is it true that the Met Gala isn’t selling us anything? Or, rather, is it selling us wealth itself? We can’t buy the items on display, but we can be seduced by the riches. Especially in times of crisis — and, whether it’s trending or not, aren’t we always in a time of crisis? — this display of glamor can feel ghoulish and gauche.

And yet, I can’t help but think this feeling is too easy — like posting once on Instagram and calling it activism or recycling a water bottle and calling it climate justice. The wealth disparity in our country and world is evil, but this most visible display is not its greatest culprit. Again, the celebrities don’t even own these clothes.

When peasants are starving, it’s easy to get upset at Marie Antoinette’s elaborate wigs. It’s more challenging to accept that the wigs are cheap compared to the monarchy’s wars. Ultimately, the immense displays of wealth most visible to the general public are not just a distraction from hardship — they’re a distraction from greater evils.

We should absolutely critique celebrity culture and any famous person who hoards enough wealth to be a billionaire. I just think we should reserve our greatest ire for rich people who are boring about it.

I’m joking. Kind of. I don’t think Cowboy Carter or Star Wars or the greatest Met Gala look can excuse the morals of our most famous billionaires, but I do try to remember how many within the wealthiest class contribute absolutely nothing of value. Most rich people take and take and exploit and exploit in order to wear ugly clothes in ugly homes. With recent trends leaning toward the sleek — aka cold and hideous — there’s something interesting about displays of wealth that are actually, well, on display.

Maybe I’m making excuses, because it’s fun to see pretty people in pretty clothes. I just feel like the most concerning agents in our society are hidden in the shadows — funding war and exploiting labor while remaining completely nameless. And even the known wealthy causing the most harm and contributing the least are not glamorous. They’re tech moguls and politicians.

I hope this year’s Met Gala is met with protests, whether for climate justice or to remind the attendees (and those watching the attendees) that our country continues to fund the ongoing genocide in Palestine. But I also hope we remember that many of our world’s most powerful will never be seen at something like the Met Gala or the Oscars. Many won’t even be at something like the State of the Union address. The majority stakeholders in our world enact violence without the exposure of fame.

The best thing someone can do with exorbitant wealth is give it away. The second best thing they can do is make art, make their home into art, or make themself into art. The Met Gala is a celebration of this second best thing — if only second best didn’t feel so sinister.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 538 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. “The best thing someone can do with exorbitant wealth is give it away. The second best thing they can do is make art, make their home into art, or make themself into art. The Met Gala is a celebration of this second best thing — if only second best didn’t feel so sinister.”

    I love this.

  2. I love and absolutely agree with this: both the whole thing and particularly the ending paragraph! It’s incomprehensible to me to have the money to do anything, and chose both not to help people AND to look so, so incredibly dull while not helping…

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