What's up with this fascination with the very, very rich for our entertainment? It's a fair question and especially piquant here at the centre of the entertainment industry.
Behind and underneath the giddy coverage of the fast reshoot to replace Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in the movie All the Money In The World, there's an issue. And it's not just the revelation that actor Mark Wahlberg was paid $1.5-million for the reshoot while his female co-star Michelle Williams got a pittance.
The issue is certainly money related. Right now, the very rich are being prioritized as fodder for drama. The reshot movie is about billionaire J. Paul Getty and his ruthless reaction to the kidnapping of his grandson in 1973. Coming soon to the FX channel is Trust, a 10-part series about the same story from a different angle. Donald Sutherland plays J. Paul Getty and Oscar-winner Danny Boyle directs it.
Coming to HBO later this year is Succession, a saga about the Roys, a fictional, megarich American global-media family that is not only wealthy and powerful but also made up of maladjusted people. (It's written by Jesse Armstrong who, several years ago, wrote a screenplay titled Murdoch about media mogul Rupert Murdoch, that was never produced and, reportedly, was delicious but made every movie studio nervous.) The drama Billions, on Showtime now for two years, is about Bobby Axelrod, a billionaire hedge-fund maestro and his battle with an envious, conniving U.S. Attorney. The old soap opera Dynasty, about a megarich family, was revived last year.
The dramas are about family dynamics, international business and the thrills and spills of power and influence in the 21st century. But extrapolating meaning from this fixation on the megarich is a minefield. Is it related somehow to the election of Donald Trump and are we, in some fashion, simply happy to be peasants enthralled and impressed by vast wealth?
Well, yes, in a way, according to Adam McKay, a veteran writer/producer who directed episodes of HBO's Succession, a show he describes as being about "dynastic congealed wealth."
"You can't ignore the reality," McKay said here at the TV critics press tour. "Income inequality is at an all-time high, higher than during the 1850s, including slavery, and higher than Roman times including slavery."
He cited Dynasty as an example of audience worship of wealth and of aspiration to a lifestyle. But he cautioned that there is a troubling reality behind the infatuation with billionaires. "Part of the reality is this – we're seeing this unparalleled oligarchical planet that we're living in."
Succession, he said, is neither "a celebration" of these people, nor it is a "tub-thumping denunciation at every turn." He added, "Hopefully, we're starting to ask questions."
Questions do need to be asked. Examining the fascination with billionaires, in the pop culture and in politics, is opening a can of worms. The digital age, with its endless cacophony of gossip, rumour and mere superficial attitudes, has, in a way, made us serfs again, obsessed with the nobility that is the billionaire class. Social media has allowed celebrity worship to morph into wealth worship.
There is a strange dynamic at work. Trump began his campaign by declaring that he's incredibly rich – that was his entire credibility – and somehow, by the time he was elected, he was the epitome of populism and identified with the grievances of the disenfranchised. An element of the engine driving the possibility of an Oprah Winfrey run for the presidency is that, like Trump, she's a billionaire. We almost deify tech billionaires and Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg has dallied with the idea of running for office.
What it all means, maybe, is that we're numb to the issue of billionaires being interested in more wealth accumulation for themselves, not the greater good. If we see the antics of the megarich as entertainment, then we are immune to understanding the impact of the accumulation of vast wealth. Somebody suffers, something in the fabric of society is undone if we are truly living on the "oligarchical planet" that McKay describes.
Certainly, there is high drama in the lives of the very rich, especially in the arena of family squabbles about inheritance and manoeuvres for power as a billionaire ages. That is part of the texture of Succession, which Brian Cox, who plays the media mogul, says is not that far from the themes of King Lear.
Trends in entertainment come and go, but this one is meaningful. The fascination with the very, very rich for our entertainment says something lamentable about the audience's sense of self-worth.