In film and television, audiences have seen the wealthy portrayed in many lights – from misunderstood and lonely to mustache-twirling villains. No matter how they’re portrayed, however, they never lose their enigmas. They have indispensable wealth and resources that gets them out of any situation. They may hurt themselves and each other along the way, but it’s never anything that cannot be forgiven, and if it is, you never see the consequences run their course. You can see the rich ‘bad guy’ walk away at the end of a film in handcuffs, but you don’t see any further because he most likely got off with a warning and a slap on the wrist. Take Gossip Girl for example, a beloved tv show that glamourized the idea of epic loves, fashion designers, galas and wealth. Every season of the show paints the less fortunate as the ‘bad guys.’ They’re the antagonists of the show and the manipulative, selfish Upper East-siders walk away from every situation with barely a scratch, and you side with them. Jenny Humphress (Taylor Momsen) is one of the most hated characters on the show, yet most of the time she is only trying to be like your faves. It’s not a wonder that it has shaped the way the masses view wealth: as a scapegoat in life, the answer to immortality and impenetrability. Even with Keeping up with the Kardashians, the portrayal of wealth is that of private jets, private vacations and extravagant homes and parties. Their lives are meant to seem ‘relatable’, but there’s nothing relatable nor palatable about them. What 2019’s films attempted to do to is take a flashlight to the horror creeping in the dark realities of wealth. Films like Ready or Not (2019) and Knives Out (2019) made comedic, but also clever remarks on the topics of money and inheritance, whereas films like Us (2019) and Parasite (2019) took a more poetic and straight-forward approach to discussing privilege and wealth.
Ready or Not made its debut and was immediately considered “an arrow perfectly aimed at the 1%.” It took a black comedy approach to the topic of existential wealth, but it still made some points. Samara Weaving plays Grace – a once foster child now grown woman marrying the man of her dreams, Alex (Mark O’ Brien), and she cannot wait to finally be a part of a real family, even one that considers themselves a ‘dominion’ rather than just a family. Soon after the film kicks off, you get the understanding that the family doesn’t accept Grace because she’s not ‘blue-blooded.’ Still, her optimism perseveres. Then, she finds out that the family has sold themselves to the literal devil, Mr. Le Bail, and if they don’t hunt her down and sacrifice her in a sinister game of Hide and Seek before dawn, then they themselves will die. It’s a game of cat and mouse that puts the morality of the wealthy on blast. As you laugh and align yourself with Grace, who is portrayed with a stunning and believable performance by Weaving, you’re given a joking but also side-eyeing insight to the 1%. Writers Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy show that not only is this lifestyle not earned like the rich so badly want you to believe, but that they are willing to lay all morals and social values aside to keep that wealthy lifestyle. The outright deceptive and overly used message that the masses and the influencers want you to believe is that if you work really hard, you’ll get to be just as rich as them one day. Well, that’s just not true, is it? They may not be selling their souls and performing ritual sacrifices (to public knowledge), but they also didn’t work for their billions of wealth. In fact, there is always a way to get ahead that undermines the very message they so desperately want everyone to believe.
The same can be said for the characters of Knives Out. What writer/director Rian Johnson did with his narration and dialogue of the film is marvelous. As you’re laughing at a snide comment or ignorance of the Thrombey’s in this film, you know deep inside, as a person on the side of Marta (Ana de Armas), it’s true to reality. What Knives Out depicts is not only the wealth that comes from monetary value but also the wealth that is configured when you’re born in America. Many people, like the characters of the film, get to lump everyone else together as the ‘lesser than’. They don’t even remember what country Marta is from, and that’s because to them, everyone who is part of the ‘other’ is the same. They can take their ‘small $1 million loan’ from their fathers and convince themselves that they’re self-made. Even the characters who seem ‘woke’ and closer to understanding the faults of their families, like Meg (Katherine Langford), are seen showing familial and monetary loyalty over altruism.
On a more serious end of the spectrum, Hustlers (2019) compares the world to a strip club, where the wealthy are “throwing the money” and the rest of the world is just “doing a dance” for them, just to get even a fraction of that money. Writer/director Lorena Scafaria took the real-life story of two strippers – or, to put it better, business women – who were tired of wealthy men, who are not only in charge of finances but also the economy, walking all over them and cheating the system without reprimands. So, they decided to play the “game” like everyone else. The film beautifully explores victimhood and revenge. Like the other two films mentioned, Hustlers displays the consequences of the actions of the wealthy who have little to no regard for those less wealthy, and how only the less fortunate experience the consequences of those actions, not the actual perpetrators themselves.
Possibly the best portrayal of wealth discrepancies and class division is Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite. The film follows a lower-class family living in a basement apartment of South Korea and struggling to hold on to jobs at the beginning of the film. When the eldest son, Kim-woo (Choi Woo-shik), gets a job tutoring for a wealthy family’s daughter, he schemes to brings in the rest of his family under guises to work for the wealthy family as well. Throughout the span of the film, you watch two different families from different walks of life come face-to-face and deal with the consequences of the class disparity upfront. Bong Joon-Ho himself stated in a GQ interview that the Park family wants to “push everyone outside” of the invisible line of sophistication they’ve created. It’s where they feel safe – where their workers and definitely not anyone ‘lesser than’ is welcome. The film creates a bubble similar to the bubble that the wealthy live in today – impenetrable, perfectly clean and round. But unbeknownst to them, the Park’s did not welcome one of their own into the bubble. Now, in this perfect dome of wealth and class, the lower class is in breathing distance of the upper class, and so is the audience. Perhaps the most prominent display of polarity between the families comes from the flood that happens towards the climax of the film. The audience watches as a massive flood destroys the lives and homes of the poor, and as they fight and step over each other for survival in the slums, that same flood has zero effect on the Park family except for being an inconvenience to their camping trip. And in all the mixed air of different paths crossing, resentment grows in a nasty, festering, parasitic way that blows up in the film’s climax.
On an even more horrific note, Jordan Peele’s Us thematizes the topic of privilege, which is just the sister of wealth. In that film you follow the Wilson family as a sinister horde of doppelgangers who have been living in the tunnels underground rise up in red jumpsuits and begin murdering their upper-living halves. As the audience questions what is going on, and why it’s happening, all of your questions are answered when Red (Lupita Nyong’o) begins talking. The film explores how privilege is a two-sided coin, and how for every upper hand you have, there is someone suffering the other end of it. This two-headed coin is summed up when Adelaide (also Nyong’o) gets to find a “prince” and marry the love of her life, but Red is forced into an unwanted relationship. The film goes on to show Elizabeth Moss’s character have a scene where she is putting on lipstick – a thing she has never had the privilege to do her entire life.
There was an ongoing joke about the “eat the rich” genre of films in 2019 all featuring an impulsively regurgitative character, but maybe these characters are a symbol of how sick the reality of wealth disparity is. Monetary wealth has polluted the views of the Le Domas Dominion, the Thrombey family, the men working on Wall Street and the Park family into thinking that lives hardships shouldn’t affect them anymore, and they are excused from caring about the people “below” them who are still being tossed around. Their every action is justified to keep the money in the family and the family away from the common people. Capitalism has convinced real life people that the Le Domas’ and the Parks of the real world deserve their wealth more than the rest of the world. It is, in fact, a nauseating truth.
2019’s films have offered anecdotes to the mystery surrounding wealth, and have also offered some form of revenge that audiences can live vicariously through – like watching the rich family literally explode into nothing but a confetti display of flesh. They’ve offered some real, poetic insights as well, some that have kept audiences discussing the meaning of privilege and class. In the words of Bong Joon-Ho, “It’s not like we [filmmakers] all gathered for a big meeting on how we should talk about class, it just happened very naturally.” It happened so organically with every film of 2019, and in so many different ways, that every audience member can divulge in the content and themes of class. What 2019 had to say about wealth is that there’s privilege to check in not only the rich but everyone as well, and maybe, next time you try to defend the wealth of the 1%, think about how many Marta’s, Grace’s, and even yourselves were stepped on to get the Le Domas’ and the Thromey’s of the world where they are today.