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The Acquisitive Self, Minus the Self

Los Angeles isn’t exactly the place that comes to mind when you think of decorous restraint in the display of wealth, even in the dregs of the Great Recession. Here in my hometown, possibly more than in any other outpost of faux-meritocratic privilege in our republic of getting and spending, untrammeled acquisition is understood as an expression of individual will—and more than that, a matter of taste.

Yet for all the studio money sloshing around our bright, stucco world, most of us have never encountered the miniscule stratum of humans that hovers above the rich: the pure, gilt-edged, entrenched, multigenerational wealthy. Movie star money is food stamps compared to oil money, hedge fund money, and even some of that dank old money that still floats around the haciendas of Pasadena. We might have stood kegside next to Kirsten Dunst once, but we don’t know the kinds of rich people that F. Scott Fitzgerald had in mind when he wrote that the rich “are different from you and me”: the Vanderbilts, Rothschilds, and Astors. Hell, our L.A. doesn’t even boast a new-money Midwestern poultry heiress.

We don’t see these types—let alone interact with them—because they’ve largely seceded from public view. This is the guilt-prone social formation that Paul Fussell dubbed the “top out-of-sight class,” because you typically can’t see their houses/compounds unless you have access to a helicopter. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, the top out-of-sight class had been very much in sight; Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and Philadelphia’s Main Line mansions are still monuments to their Caligulan self-regard. But ever since the Great Depression, and its attendant booms in Social Realist art and Popular Front politics, they staged a quiet but striking mass retreat. So spooked out were the über-rich that they became almost discreet. “The situation now is very different from the one in the 1890s satirized by Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class,” Fussell wrote in 1983. “In [Veblen’s] day the rich delighted to exhibit themselves conspicuously. . . . Now they hide.”

Thirty years later, this is still mostly true, but thanks to the exhibition-friendly canons of social media, the scions of excess are back and flaunting it, baby—and it’s an entirely underwhelming display. These aren’t the out-of-sight rich but their twentysomething children, flouting their parents’ wealth-whispers code of silence. With acres of unproductive time on their hands, bored rich kids are using their gold-plated iPhones to post images of their baubles of privilege, their chemical stimulants of preference, and their outlandish bar tabs on Instagram, the photo-sharing service of the moment. It’s a bit as though a Bret Easton Ellis novel has come blandly to life, without the benefit of any irony.

Rich Kids of Instagram curates photos posted by “funemployed” trust-funders.

Predictably enough, a Tumblr photo-blog has stirred vacantly into being, to compile all these outpourings of opulence in one convenient place. Launched in 2012 by a founder who remains anonymous, Rich Kids of Instagram (RKOI for short) curates and tags photos posted on Instagram by the likes of Barron Hilton, Tiffany Trump, and other “funemployed” trust-funders. The Tumblr, which slaps a whimsical, intricately scrolled frame around each photo but adds little else, doesn’t come with a explanation or an editorial policy, other than that it purports to show you the lifestyles that the unseen rich had previously shared only with their similarly rich friends. “They have more money than you do and this is what they do,” goes the tagline.

Why should we look? The payoffs for the nonrich civilian viewer are oddly perfunctory. After all of the social mythologies we’ve lovingly constructed to envelop the delusions of the 1 percent, this is the lurid end-of-the-rainbow payoff they’ve decided to lord over the rest of us—a fistful of watches, car interiors, and European spa photos? The content of Rich Kids of Instagram is less the aftermath of an imperial Roman bacchanal than the shamefaced hangover of an especially inane and oversexed (though well-appointed!) frat party. Around about the dozenth selfie featuring a buff and/or emaciated scion nestled into a private jet with a bottle of Cristal and a $10,000 clip of cash (“Always make sure to tip your pilot and co-pilot 10k. #rulesofflyingprivate”), you can’t help but wonder, “Is that all there is?”

The Duller Image

Indeed, in strictly visual terms, the site is hard to distinguish from a luxe Sharper Image catalog—merchandised out, to be sure, but disappointingly clichéd. The rich boys of Instagram—the son of fashion mogul Roberto Cavalli, for example, and a weak-chinned fellow with the handle Lord_Steinberg—post pictures of their IWC Grande Complication Perpetual watches, multiple Lamborghinis, and six-figure bar tabs. Here, all the shiny expensive crap seems to cry out, is what I’ve done with my life in lieu of becoming an adult. The young rich ladies, such as Alexa Dell (of, you know, the Dell computers fortune), mainly document how all this pelf looks from the other side of the gender divide: they snap pics of themselves surrounded by tangerine Hermès shopping bags, eating sushi sprinkled with 24K gold flakes, and holding their American Express Centurion card minimum payment notifications (typically $40,000).

There’s not even much in the way of the makings of righteous socialist outrage. (Swazi Leaks this most definitely is not; that project, by contrast, pairs leaked photographs of Swaziland’s high-rolling absolute monarch with pictures of $1-a-day sub-subsistence conditions in the slums.) Yes, the rich kids seem determined to remind us that they have stuff the rest of us will never have. The captions they post with their photos are, at times, slyly aware of their part in inequality (cf. a picture of a private jet and a luxury car with the caption “The struggle is real”). But for all that, the kids don’t seem especially power-hungry so much as aimless and languid. Behind these faux-provocative posts lurks a desperate clamor for attention that almost verges on a cry for help—something that makes you feel a certain involuntary (and certainly undeserved) pity for these manically self-documented upper-crusters.

Thanks to the exhibition-friendly canons of social media, the scions of excess are back and flaunting it, baby.

Nevertheless, the rich kids keep on multiplying their blandified self-inventories, and some among the rest of us, presumably, keep looking. In the beginning, few of the kids knew their Instagram feeds were being monitored by RKOI; the security detail for Alexa Dell, for one, wasn’t prepared to see some of her pictures, with recognizable details that could give away her whereabouts (usually closely guarded by her family), show up on the site. Her social media presence was quickly scrubbed. But now, many of the kids featured know they’re getting Tumblr’d, and some court the attention by submitting photos for consideration, tagged with #rkoi. Rich Kids of Instagram has earned its subjects thousands of followers for their individual feeds, and even momentarily catapulted some of the sort-of rich, perhaps splashing out on a once-a-year chartered yacht to Saint Tropez, into better company than they could ordinarily afford.

American media culture has done its part by spinning off these social-media maunderings into a full complement of incoherent dreck. Last winter, the E! cable network debuted #RichKids of Beverly Hills, a reality TV series loosely organized around the premise (if we can call it that) of the Tumblr account. (The show even features—wink, wink—an “Instagram-obsessed” cast member named Morgan Stewart, who delivers such walk-on anathemas to viewer interest as “I’ve taken so many selfies on my cell phone today it’s, like, embarrassing.” No, son, what’s embarrassing is that you’re saying this shit out loud, in front of a television camera.)

The PG-13 Class War

If an E! show wasn’t enough, this summer saw the release of a book-like object, also called The Rich Kids of Instagram, credited to the site’s anonymous founder together with a ghostwriter/collaborator named Maya Sloan. Like its “inspiration,” the book—billed for some reason as a novel—is unrelentingly dumb, though it does supply an important clue to the weird demographic marketing strategy behind the Rich Kids franchise. It’s clearly written for kids or, um, young adults, suggesting that the notion of “aspirational” reading and viewing—the grand media euphemism for the lifestyle-voyeurism genre—is ripe for retirement. Instead, this plotless, and nearly character-less, flight of fancy is something far more inert, and less interesting: an empty vessel of careless adolescent fantasy.

The book’s careful observance of PG-13 canons of teen rebellion is so pronounced as to be obtrusive. There’s little in the way of appalling or casual sex; the cussing and chronic drug use (nothing too hard, mind you: pills, weed, blow) is there mainly for box-checking shock value. In this, as well, the book is true to the real-life Tumblr; nowhere do you see anything truly threatening or transgressive, like Jordan Belfort snorting coke out of a hooker’s ass in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. No, all you encounter, in the book as on the Tumblr feed, is the sort of teen spliff smoking you’d find at an average Dave Matthews show—but in a jet, bro!!

In the same way that such scenes beg to be seen as transgressive, the Rich Kids oeuvre begs to be seen as a populist-baiting vindication of privilege for privilege’s sake: Take that, plebes! But there’s a telling sleight of hand here. The book’s main gimmick is identical to the Tumblr’s MO: the outrage is all imputed to you, the reader, in advance, by its ostensible targets or by the medium itself. This means, in turn, that the proceedings float serenely above any semblance of real-world criticism. So, not surprisingly, the book suffers from the same thing the actual rich kids of Instagram kids do, only at far more tedious length: a depressing lack of imagination. Here, for example, is one of the novel’s rich kids fuming about her maid while also clumsily name-checking her 1,200-thread-count sateen sheet set: “Woven in Italy. For what I paid, I could buy your illegal Guatemalan cousins. That is, if you weren’t from Jersey.”

There’s no pulse-pounding social tension or class resentment on offer here—unless you’re especially aroused by inarticulate dialogue. The novel doesn’t proceed in a mood of detached anthropological inquiry, the way that, say, Louis Auchincloss or John Marquand’s old-money fictions did. There’s no anger, no weight, no insight. All you have in the way of a rich-kid call-to-arms is the empty bravado of the anonymous site creator’s acknowledgements at the front of the book: “To all the RKOI kids, who are unapologetically themselves; in a world where so few people will live out loud, you guys have guts, and for that you deserve admiration.” (And yes, Rich Kid self-awareness once again stops well short of the obvious irony involved in an anonymous social media impresario’s celebration of the overclass’s bold capacity “to live out loud.”)

For “gutsy” exemplars of individual lifestyle, the kids are distressingly uniform in their motivation, behavior, and dramatic purpose. Far from emblazoning their excellent individuality upon our collective prole brainpan, the novel’s cast of characters merges into an interchangeable ensemble of predictable, privileged reflexes and half-copped attitude. Each member of this brat pack is outfitted with a suffocatingly oversignifying name and a ponderous chapter rendered in his or her voice. To save time, here’s a rundown of the main players in the book (think of it as the literary equivalent of a bar-tab selfie):

• Annalise Hoff, a high-strung media heiress who dotes on her Murdoch/Hearst mashup Daddy: “I know: Freud would have a field day with me. I don’t take the short bus, after all. I have a Bentley waiting.”

• Christian Rixen, a Denmark Royal and jewelry designer, who employs an oddly clinical diction suggesting that this is what Southern Californian rich assholes hear when Europeans speak to them: “The countess may have birthed me, but she was far from maternal.”

• Miller Crawford, a Mayflower legacy, rifle heir, and aspiring record producer—and what passes for a self-starting entrepreneur in these circles: “I made a promise long ago: I won’t be that guy. The kind who orders staff to do petty bullshit. Sure, there are emergencies. Scoring coke for an after-hours, buying last-minute condoms. As for the rest? I can get my own double latte, thanks.”

• Todd Evergreen, a Mark Zuckerberg stand-in with a suitably generic name—an upper-middle-class kid who became an overnight billionaire by captaining an overcapitalized software startup. We don’t hear from Evergreen, who is eventually driven into paranoia and Howard Hughes–like seclusion until the novel’s crashingly unpersuasive, life-affirming coda. “I liked their things,” Evergreen says of the rich kids, “don’t get me wrong. Not for the things themselves, but how excited they got about them. How their faces lit up when they talked about them. But I liked the people for other reasons. Better reasons.”

• Desdemona Goldberg, a bipolar singer/actress: “Wow, I think, that coke was awesomeness.

You don’t say. This novelization rounds out the Rich Kids trifecta: Tumblr, TV show, and book. The net effect is, fittingly enough, akin to that of another notorious plutocratic foray into cultural exhibitionism—a Damien Hirst installation. In both, we see our culture lords courting outrage in the most safely inert and vanity-fed forms of display. Both aim to provoke an aesthetic response that is little more than a fleeting revulsion, compounded by the inevitable gawking at the price tag attached to the finished product. And both make a huge deal of curating predators, whether it be champagne-squirting twentysomethings captured in photo-blog form (RKOI) or a really big shark lifelessly preserved in a bath of acid (Hirst).

Binge and Purge

For that matter, the Rich Kids franchise outdoes even Hirst, and achieves a further refinement of this recursive aesthetic of total consumption: it’s a monument to the acquisitive self minus the actual self. Sometimes the kids don’t even bother to take pictures of items they buy. Instead, they share photos of the shopping bags from whatever luxury store they just blew through. Other times, they display pictures of receipts, personal check stubs, or their names embossed on credit cards.

Capital is always on the verge of dematerializing our common world; as Marx and Engels famously warned back in the day, under the height of bourgeois domination, “all that is solid melts into the air.” Here, however, is a gloss on that crippling dynamic that the founders of socialism never could have anticipated: the children of capital are rendering their innermost selves—their critics-be-damned determination to live out loud—as a random agglomeration of nonsignifying digits. The beauty they transmit back, what they see, is nothing more than a place-holding string of credit limits where a human self, or at least a measure of use value, might once have been.

The children of capital are rendering their innermost selves as a random agglomeration of nonsignifying digits.

Still, there are evidently some young self-starters who are gleaning a different aspirational message from the whole enterprise. When frequent RKOI contributor Aleem Iqbal, a nineteen-year-old whose dad owns a luxury car leasing service in England, went on a recent binge of selfie-taking, some unintended consequences ensued. The younger Iqbal saturated his Instagram feed with shots of himself driving really expensive cars with the vanity plate “LORD.” On June 6 the teenager leased a $560,000 Lamborghini Aventador Roadster, and a few hours later someone set it on fire. A week after that, three more of his luxury cars, two Audi R8 Spyder supercars and a Bentley Flying Spur, were torched. This was not his understanding of the new social contract at all. Instead of a reality TV or book deal, all his self-infatuated Instagram entries had earned him was the smoldering hulks of four plute-mobiles. On his Facebook page, the aggrieved teen called the campaign of high-end vandalism “a vile act of jealously towards my business.”

Maybe so; it could be like George Orwell said, and there really are only two classes, the rich and the haters. On the other hand, a follower of some RKOI property might have thought it was high time to perform a salutary act of simple math: subtracting some small amount of indecent luxury from the torrent of inert and unproductive excess that we all, inexplicably, must endure. Vileness, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.