This essay contains spoilers for Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn.
Upper middle class people are rich. But don’t try to tell them that.
I grew up in a place called Oak Park located in Ventura Country, California between the suburban horse farms of Agoura Hills and the suburban McMansions of Westlake Village. Oak Park deserves no descriptor. It was just suburban. It was also a fifteen minute drive from Calabasas which meant little when my family first moved and everything when Calabasas residents the Kardashians launched their reality show in 2007.
All four of these places are upper middle class hubs — even if people in Agoura and Oak Park yearned for the wealth to live in Westlake and people in Agoura, Oak Park, and Westlake yearned for the wealth to live in Calabasas. No matter: People in Calabasas — without the last name Kardashian — yearned for the wealth to live in Beverly Hills.
And yet, anyone who makes more than around $168k a year — as many in these four places do — is in the top 10% of earners in the U.S. Sure, being so close to Los Angeles makes costs of living higher, but the wealth of these people who yearned and yearn for more is astronomical compared to a country where many are housing and food insecure.
This feeling of poverty among the relatively rich is a result of their aspirations. It’s a result of just how much wealth the wealthiest hoard. People like the Kardashians and their economic equals have enough money to make the upper middle class rich feel unworthy. We live in a capitalist hellscape where even the sixth richest man in the world is desperate to be the first.
Another fun fact about Oak Park, California is that it was the home of Alexis Neiers, famously portrayed by Emma Watson in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring. My sister briefly went to high school with Alexis. I briefly went to middle school with her younger sister. Agoura Hills even gets mentioned by name in this film about their newsworthy robberies of celebrity homes.
When The Bling Ring came out in 2014, its real life inspiration still recent, it was considered a commentary on the fame-obsessed 2000s. It appeared to most as satire of a vapid generation obsessed with a vapid generation, a society where Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan were worthy role models.
Nearly a decade removed, the film feels more complex. As a culture, we’ve reckoned with the abuse faced by someone like Lohan and acknowledged the business acumen of someone like Hilton. What was dismissed as the failings of a vapid generation was, of course, just misogyny and capitalism.
The desire of these teenagers to attain the wealth of their celebrity “victims” is less generational commentary than it is class commentary. These are upper middle class kids being fed gluttony as aspiration in a community of adults with similar goals. They are being told that to “fit in” and to be “cool” they must have an amount of things and a quality of things that no single human being should own. Coppola’s film is not a satire of these teenagers — it’s a satire of wealth itself. There’s a reason the teens say multiple times that Paris Hilton doesn’t even notice when they rob her.
Watching the film, it feels like they would’ve gotten away with it if they’d just continued to take small items from Hilton like a rat in a cupboard. But if Paris Hilton owns twenty Birkin bags, owning one just isn’t enough. The pleasure of that first steal fades. Soon you’re faced with the fact that you still have less than somebody else. The impulse that escalated their crimes from petty theft to stealing from a wealthier classmate’s home to stealing from Paris Hilton is the same impulse that motivates a family like the Hiltons. More. More. More.
Viewers and critics alike tend to discuss class critique more when it’s framed in the media as rich vs. poor. Both seasons of The White Lotus contrast its wealthy guests with people who are middle and lower class. Nobody talks about the upper middle class because the upper middle class don’t like to be talked about. They simultaneously want to be thought of as rich while acting appalled when accused of holding riches. (This is expertly mocked in Bodies Bodies Bodies when Rachel Sennott’s character spits out “Your parents are upper middle class” to her friend feigning poverty.)
An upper middle class existence is instead treated as average in the world of film and television. Homes and lifestyles most people can’t afford are casually shown on-screen in the name of fantasy. (The fantasy is generational wealth.) And when upper middle class people are parodied in something like Girls, it’s generally discussed as a commentary on privilege. But it’s not just privilege. It’s a very specific type of upper middle class privilege. It’s the privilege of being rich — or having access to family riches – while feeling like you have so much less than those around you.
Someone like Alexis Neiers and someone like Paris Hilton may have been motivated by the same capitalist impulse for more — but there is a world of nuance between their experiences of wealth. The uncomfortable truth is the Bling Ring’s “victims” deserved to be stolen from according to a Robin Hood sense of justice.
Unfortunately, stealing from the ultra rich to give to the
poor slightly less rich just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Most of the recent influx of film and television satirizing the rich opts for the same easy contrast as The White Lotus. Triangle of Sadness, Glass Onion, Parasite, The Menu, and even less well known work like The Origin of Evil creates a dynamic of rich vs. poor. This allows the viewer to identify with a noble underdog no matter who they’re more akin to in real life. (Chrissy Teigen got a lot of flack for loving Parasite but so did Elon Musk.)
One film has taken a different approach. One film has framed its class conflict as ultra rich vs. upper middle class rich. As a result, its substance has been called into question and its been dismissed by many as just vibes. That film is Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn.
I’m not going to argue that Saltburn is perfect. I agree with people who have said the ending feels like ten minutes stretched to thirty. But the accusations of vapidity and a lack of substance are baffling to me. To dismiss one plot twist in particular is to ignore the film’s entire point.
Saltburn is about an outsider named Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) who worms his way into the social circle of Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), the richest boy at Oxford. Oliver tells Felix that he’s at Oxford on scholarship, an only child whose parents are struggling with substance abuse. When Oliver’s dad dies, Felix’s sympathies increase and he invites Oliver to his family’s titular estate for the summer.
But there’s something off about Oliver. His obsession with Felix increases and his manipulations become more apparent. He seduces Felix’s sister and his cousin. He even seems to be seducing Felix’s mom.
His lies pile up until his big lie is revealed: He’s not poor. His dad isn’t dead. His parents don’t struggle with substance abuse. And he’s not even an only child. He’s an upper middle class kid with sweet, unassuming parents. And he has sisters.
Oliver pleads with Felix to understand. He says he was just being the person Felix wanted him to be. And he’s right. Felix wouldn’t have cared about someone who didn’t understand the rules of his world because they’re upper middle class. He wanted a poor person with a story that fit exactly into his stereotypes of poverty. He wanted to be inspired and he wanted to be a savior. He wanted the kind of control he could only have over someone with nowhere else to turn.
As for Oliver, he was just doing what so many of his class have done. He yearned to go from rich to richest. His lust for Felix is a lust for money, for status, for the violence inherent in both. The sexuality of the film isn’t actually that shocking for anyone who has ventured beyond Hollywood fare, but it is pointed and specific. Oliver instigates his sexual encounters with the energy of a groveling sub. He is nothing, they are everything. He will lick their cum, eat their blood, fuck the dirt atop their graves. He’s pathetic.
The sexual groveling of Oliver is akin to the social groveling of anyone — often upper middle class — who worships the ultra rich simply for being rich. Scroll through Twitter — sorry, X — and you’ll see it in every person defending its embarrassing billionaire of an owner. They are staring into a drain, licking proverbial Musk semen with every blue checked post.
Like the teens in The Bling Ring, Oliver Quick’s biggest mistake is punching up. The upper middle class isn’t supposed to steal from and kill the rich; they’re supposed to steal from and kill the middle class, the lower class, and each other. The fact is nothing Oliver does to secure Saltburn is worse than whatever the Catton family did to get it in the first place. To have that amount of wealth in their family — and to keep it — requires an immense amount of violence. The difference is Oliver’s actions are messy and direct. The violence of a family like the Cattons can often take place far away from them, carried out by those acting in their interests. Ultimate wealth is making money off murder you never even have to hear about.
Oliver is an expression of the pathetic upper middle class. But Felix is just as pathetic. All of the Cattons are just as pathetic. Just as violent. More violent. They are better dressed, have finer food, have carved their customs into stone. But they are not admirable. If there’s any justification for the length of the film’s last act, it’s the way Saltburn sits in the Cattons’ pathetic inability to be human in the face of grief. It’s easy to view Oliver as pathetic. It’s more challenging to view the beautiful Felix the same way. And yet, it’s a challenge the future of our world depends upon.
Yahoo Finance recently reported the top 20 richest people on the Forbes 400 are so rich they could buy out the bottom 340 billionaires. To even have a single billion dollars is an absurd amount of wealth no human being could ever need. The fact that there are 20 people who have so much more is disgusting. We have to shift our culture away from aspiring to these crimes against humanity. We have to turn wealth from an aspiration into a pathetic embarrassment.
To begin, we have to acknowledge the vast differences among the wealthy.
When I first left Oak Park, I moved to New York to attend NYU. I’d spent my adolescence resenting the empty consumerism of my suburb only to move to a big city and start feeling the same impulses.
Most of the other students just had so much. Rather than reckoning with my own upper middle class privilege in a city with many who have much less, I felt struck with envy toward my peers.
Sure, my parents were paying for my schooling, but I got a big scholarship! Sure, my parents paid my rent, but I had to share a room in a tiny apartment! Sure, they paid off the credit card I used recklessly one summer, but they took the card away and it was only a couple thousand dollars!
I could respond to every sign of immense privilege with reasons why I still had less than the people around me. I mean, do wealthy people grow up hearing their parents worry about money? I thought, of course not. The real answer is, of course. Everyone worries about money! My parents would argue they had to take loans out to pay for my college and rich people can pay out of pocket. But the truth is there are just levels to being rich.
There was a difference between my privilege and the privilege of my film school classmates who had their ten thousand, fifty thousand, or even a hundred thousand dollar thesis films bankrolled by their parents. There was a difference between my privilege and the privilege of my peers who ate out for every meal and lived in East Village one bedroom apartments. But my God I didn’t have to pay off my own student loans! That alone makes my family — and by extension me — very rich.
Even after college, when I stopped relying on my parents and only made between 20k and 30k until literally this year, I was still rich. Because I knew if I had surprise hospital bills, my parents would help me. If I couldn’t make rent, I could move back in with them. I lived very frugally to avoid that latter scenario — especially after I came out — but the safety net itself is a kind of wealth. It’s not Paris Hilton wealth, it’s not Felix Catton wealth, it’s not even Alexis Neiers wealth. But it’s still wealth.
I’m an artist. I understand the desire for aesthetics. Nice clothes, nice homes, gourmet food, it’s all desired for a reason. Even now, I wish I had far more money than I do. But is the desire to be rich? Or is the desire to live in a society where affordable clothing isn’t terribly made and mass produced by exploited labor? Is it for apartments to be affordable and owned by individuals or small companies rather than large corporations that buy up properties and set absurd rent prices? Is it for the cost of regular living to be reasonable so I could more often treat myself to a nice meal?
The Bling Ring and Saltburn are excellent satires of an upper middle class that deserves satirizing. But the worst crime of that upper middle class will always be enabling the worst crimes of the ultra rich. Anyone with wealth needs to reckon with how we earn it and how we spend it — especially if we’re striving for more — but part of that reckoning includes perspective on who owns the most in our world. Not out of aspiration, but out of disgust.
I love seeing what people wear to the Met Gala. Is it worth reflecting on the Met Gala as a celebration of wealth? Yes. Is it also worth noting that most of those celebrities are simply borrowing those dresses and jewels? Also yes. I couldn’t afford to see Beyoncé this year, but I already have my ticket purchased to see the Renaissance movie this weekend. Is it worth tempering my admiration for Beyoncé, a capitalist and billionaire, even as I enjoy her artistry? Yes. Is it also worth noting that Beyoncé isn’t even on the Forbes 400 let alone in that top 20? ALSO YES. Because not even Jay-Z is on the list. There is, however, someone named Jay Paul, a random man in real estate who I’m sure has never produced anything as good as Lemonade or even Jay-Z’s feature on “Upgrade U.”
I don’t say this to let Beyoncé, the Met Gala, or myself off the hook — just like the phrase “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” does not mean all actions are equally unethical. However, I do think an awareness of how wealth is distributed and the nuances within the word “wealthy” are important if we want to change our system. More people who are upper middle class need to start admitting they’re rich — even if there are others who have so much more.
Saltburn may be a fun erotic comedy filled with style, but it’s also one of the smartest critiques of the upper middle class I’ve ever seen and, therefore, one of the smartest critiques of the ultra wealthy. We need work critical of a family like the Cattons that doesn’t allow audiences the ease of identifying with their servants.
There is no poverty to be fetishized in Oliver Quick — just a pathetic desperation no amount of money could ever cure.
Saltburn is now showing in theatres. The Bling Ring is now streaming on Netflix.