Serene and ghostly, flanked by burning torches, a wooden raft glides gently across a lake. Aboard is a sarcophagus and its black-robed protector, bound for the base of a 40-foot moss-covered owl that appears in the darkness to be hewn from mountain rock. All the while, High Priests in rhinestone-studded technicolour nightgowns hymn a sermon to forest fairies and water sprites, to the lachrymose love of man for himself. From behind the stage, hidden dry ice machines pump out a mystical fog as the sarcophagus, called ‘Dull Care’ and built to symbolise the earthly worries of the world, is loaded onto a rickety altar. From the foliage rises a rhythm of incantation. At the climactic moment, ‘Care’ is set on fire while a band decked out in boating blazers and straw hats strike up a ragtime tune. From the gathered hundreds spread around the amphitheatre, a galaxy of applause.
This, infamously, is the opening ceremony for the annual summer retreat known as Bohemian Grove, a sad and gaudy mélange of occult kitsch, theatre-kid pomp, and Earth Mother woo-woo. Tucked in the Sonoma Country redwoods, the campsite was built as a haven for upper-crust West Coast pioneers as American manifest destiny slumped its way to the Pacific. Today, it is just another rest stop on the great white carnival ride of the elite social calendar – a chance, away from the grubby judgement of the masses, to gambol and gladhand and arse-slap in boardshorts, to swim naked in ponds together. Presidents, princes, secretaries of state, the mortuary technicians of the arms industry, Koch-backed think tank goons, corporate raiders in the Patrick Bateman style – all the grease in the wheels of the capitalist order gather to praise each other’s daring, to be happy and frivolous among their own class, shorn from the bourgeois rules of the world their ancestors built, of which they are the self-appointed guardians.
Like other conclaves of ultra-rich hobnobbing, Bohemian Grove invites shady speculation; the more these societies pull down the cowl of secrecy, the more dangerous and mysterious they seem. We fill in the gaps with deviant, Caligulan thoughts. In 2000, when the right-wing blowhard Alex Jones came back from a reconnaissance trip to the Grove blathering about ancient sacraments of human sacrifice, he could not decide whether the rites were of Babylonian origin, Satanic, or passed down from Old English Druids. Based on the gossip pages, memoirs, and criminal trials of old, we think we can imagine what goes on. We get the gist: the trafficked women paraded for the picking, the alpine vistas of cocaine piled up on antique silverware. But what else lurks beneath? These ceremonies, surely, are to initiate fresh recruits into the Deep State or the New World Order; they must be necessary to summon the blessings of Moloch or Lucifer or whoever, the occluded scene littered with chicken heads, pentagrams, red candles, and the spilled blood of child-brides.
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In the last decade, these fantasies of decadence and debauchery have become the focus of mainstream filmmakers and television showrunners – and not only because the theatricality of their ‘traditions’ makes for juicy material. As life bites harder, the overflowing cup of public fury has merged with the wrath that comes with every new exposé of fat-cat deviance: Jeffrey Epstein, Larry Nassar, Kevin Spacey - on the list goes. Our most wicked thoughts about their private lives are only encouraged when our suspicions are proven true: the more disgusting the figure, like Harvey Weinstein, the more likely his corruption. What marks out the current crop of movies and television shows is their departure from what’s come before, and while some may be good art (and some even better comedy), at the least they do not resort to the usual methods: posing the ‘working’ lives of the rich as a bit of aspirational propaganda, or laundering their tastes in a package-deal vision of the opulent lifestyle.
Instead, they peel back the cling-film and prod about in the fat-scum that floats to the brim of this rarefied sphere, cracking jokes at their expense or unpicking the bizarre relationships that ferment in these cosseted settings. Going beyond the barbed wire on the ridge-roads of their compounds, ducking the circling helicopters, they certainly do a better job of spying than Alex Jones ever did. And contained within this infiltration is another fantasy: not only of what the wealthy get up to in their spare time but what we as ordinary people would like to do to them if we had the chance. What revenge would you visit on them as punishment for their greed? If you had the neck of a banker in your hands, how hard would you squeeze?
Pill-fired orgies, mass clone-slaughter, cuckold reprisal, ritual humiliation, gay mafia wet-jobs, late-night roadkill, fireside hazing: these pictures are hardly shy of showing what grotesquery can be indulged when money has shorn life of all responsibility. Nor are they afraid of depicting the cruelty and mewling entitlement of the common oligarch or floor-trader. A pumped-up realtor spends the larger part of the first season of The White Lotus (HBO, dir. Mike White) humiliating a hotel manager. When the manager finally snaps and takes a vengeful shit on his tormentor’s floor, the realtor shoots him dead – and guiltlessly gets away with it by claiming self-defence. Similarly Kendall Roy, scion of a Murdoch- or Maxwell-ish media dynasty in Succession (also HBO), turns over a SUV in a Scottish river and leaves a young bellhop to drown in the passenger seat. His father covers up this cut-rate Chappaquiddick in exchange for his son’s professional loyalty. Later, that same father will make his closest advisors and family members bay like hogs on the floor of a hunting lodge to prove their fealty. The workers aboard a luxury yacht in Ruben Östlund’s maximalist satire Triangle of Sadness are explicitly forbidden from saying no to any request from the guests on board – including a randy tech billionaire and a corpulent fertiliser tycoon.
By far the most unrestrained – and haunting – vision of what a rich person’s Id really looks like can be found in Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool, a psychonautic pilgrimage to the fuzzy outer edges of human sanity. In it, a hack writer played by Alexander Skarsgård is on holiday in what appears to be a Balkan exclave not yet recovered from the First World War. More precisely, he is confined to the fenced grounds of a luxury resort – a double-indemnifying detail – where he falls in with an affluent crowd who have learned to bend the country’s arcane rituals to their own ends.
First, they must kill a local. A car and a winding road at midnight will do, though other options are available. Then they must get themselves arrested, and at the police station are given a choice. National law demands an immediate death sentence, to be carried out by the victim’s first-born son. However, for a large wad of cash and by some alchemy of weird science, a clone can be made of the accused and substituted in their place. Thus they get to witness their own execution, hooting and yapping from the gallery. Between hallucinogenic bouts of wild sex, the writer sees his own gut carved up, his neck slit, and then, at the bidding of his new pals, gets to bash in the head of his own copy. Freed from all limits of moral sense and operating smoothly on the lubricant of their own lucre, the gang indulge their every whim. By pushing beyond the possible, Cronenberg moves us closer to the core of their being, an inner world stripped of all enchantment and ideology and purpose: libidinal for its own sake, emancipated from earthly rules and their own death drive. If they could, they would.
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Infinity Pool, however, is exceptional among its peers in that its prosperous characters do not need a field army of vassals and servants in order to function. In Succession, The White Lotus, Triangle of Sadness, as well as Mark Mylod’s The Menu, it is service workers (waitstaff, cleaners, prostitutes) who must smile through the full force of their whims and tantrums and, in the latter two cases, get to have their retribution. The Menu hinges on a slow and elaborately staged torture of the rich patrons of an haute-cuisine restaurant by a head chef (Ralph Fiennes) fed up with cooking for people of no taste. He guides his guests to their doom while pointing out their every crime and flaw: the hedge fund fratboys confronted with insider-trading receipts branded on corn tortillas; the bien pensant food writer forced to face all the budding careers she’s destroyed (to which the critic should reply: if only!). In this fantasy the rich are granted, as a parting gift, a moment of realisation and atonement on the brink of their fiery demise. None of them choose to take it - they all go out pleading their own innocence.
The good sailors of the SS Triangle of Sadness, by contrast, go out firing on both ends. In a now-notorious, outrageous, bravura sequence, genteel old ladies and social media influencers alike are served a multi-course degustation of seafood, champagne, and shellfish as they voyage into a storm. Bucketing and swaying, for a full fifteen minutes, each in turn heaves their meals over the cabin walls or spray it out backwards over the carpet.
Östlund’s film is also unique in imaging the moment after the collapse of bourgeois order. The boat is captured by pirates (the most exquisite gag in the film is when a geriatric British couple is blown apart by a hand grenade made by their own arms company), and a cross-section of survivors try to make do on a deserted island. A kind of ironic inversion occurs, and a Filipino toilet-scrubber (played by Dolly de Leon) comes to control her former bosses with a mix of bribery, blackmail, and sexual favours. She turns out, after not much prompting, to be equally as tyrannical as her overlords on the yacht.
There is no true emancipation here (just as there is none in Romain Gavras’ almost-revolutionary 2022 film Athena), no real moment of explosive transcendence. Östlund is an equal-opportunity discriminator, and as a good satirist he knows not to let rigorous class-politics get in the way of a good joke. Hence why Woody Harrelson’s allegedly “Marxist” boat captain is just as dumb and broken by the system as everyone else, and rather than use his final hours rallying his crew to their liberation, he spends them drunkenly quoting memes about Lenin and Ronald Reagan with a Russian oligarch.
Still: not since Luis Buñuel trapped his aristocrats in a haunted house of their own making in The Exterminating Angel has the cinematic tearing-down of ruling-class gargoyles been conducted with such delectation and superabundant joy. But as it was in Buñuel’s time, so it is in ours. Cinematic humiliations can only ever be that – cinematic. After the laughter comes the realisation: seeing the rich brought low, relishing in their degradation, is only a pale substitute for the real thing. Though lacking a hardy stomach and giving too much sympathy to the sight of a bejewelled heiress shuddering on the bathroom floor, Sam Adler-Bell put it best: “My enemies are in power, but I can picture them in flames.”
Such a realisation shouldn’t imperil the good jokes (I’ll take what I can get) yet it’s important nonetheless: the visceral glee at seeing their comeuppance can only act as a salve and a compensation for our own inability to shoulder the world away from their desires. The thirst to witness their dispossession and humbling can never be truly sated until it actually happens, and in the meantime, the kinds of penalties we would like to serve on them are just as outlandish as the fantasies of how we think they really live.
When Spy journalist Phillip Weiss snuck inside Bohemian Grove in 1989, he found a forest floor pungent with cast-off cigar ends, 8am gin-fizz parties, lapidary puddles of piss, a whole lot of horse-trading and deal-making, and Henry Kissinger palling about with a Soviet commissar. For those who know about Kissinger’s habits this is hardly surprising, but all the same he was – regrettably – not caught in feathered shaman’s garb overseeing a bonfire of goat entrails and toddler skulls.
In this sense the uber-rich lead a much more sordid existence than fiction could ever describe. Since liberal journalists have finally, at this late hour, got around to playing dirty with the ghouls who staff the Supreme Court, we finally know about the steady stream of lavish gifts and private-jet holidays given by billionaire Harlan Crow to Justice Clarence Thomas – including his regular trips to Bohemian Grove. Their elite strata is a network of patronage, access, and backscratching. There is never really any ‘time off’ in the usual sense: it’s all business, most especially when it’s conducted in a Hawaiian shirt on a volcanic Indonesian island (or on Little St James). And what the reporting revealed – along with that hysterical painting of Thomas lounging gormlessly in his slacks-and-sandals – is a world stuffed to the hilt with the kinds of kitschy hokum only a rich person could ever want.
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On the grounds of Crow’s Adirondacks estate is a life-sized replica of Hagrid’s hut from Harry Potter; at his Dallas pad he keeps an extensive collection of Nazi paraphernalia including two of Hitler’s landscape studies, a stack of swastika-stamped tablecloths, and a signed copy of Mein Kampf. If, as Crow’s defenders keep on insisting, he is not actually a fascist, then what’s all this for? Maybe, much like the gang in Infinity Pool, he does it because he can. But unlike those fictional libertines, Crow lacks any imagination beyond the accumulation of junk and trash for its own sake. Earlier generations of bourgeois layabouts at least knew that their cultural prestige depended on sponsoring some down-on-their-luck artist; a better class of crook might have the vision to be truly weird or wicked. What we’re stuck with instead is a degenerated elite grubbing along in an ersatz universe carefully crafted to pinch them nowhere.
As one character says in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, money is like an iron: it smooths all wrinkles. Because they are so parched of imagination, a number of rich men (and some women, too) have taken this aphorism literally. The only thing their cash cannot purchase is a route out of dying and so have been hunting for ways to halt the march of ageing. Both arch-vulture-capitalist Peter Thiel and Mormon hedge-funder Bryan Johnson confess to receiving transplants of blood plasma from younger men in a bid to fend off the eternal. We dare not speculate as to whether these ‘blood boys’ really consented to being milked or if large brown envelopes swayed their decisions, but the net result is that Thiel and Johnson have become their own clichés. The only thing the procedure has done is to make both of them look like haunted ventriloquist dummies, and yes, even a little vampiric. (For some reason Kissinger has never taken this road and now, on the eve of his hundredth birthday looks like an old potato sculpted in lard). Such schemes are not mad or even eccentric – just transparent, and very pathetic.
As in the social world which they swim through seamlessly, so it is in the political realm which they control. Nothing new is being built; everything they don’t like is being destroyed. And whenever we’re allowed to glimpse inside the chambers where decisions are made, we find that it’s much dumber and more grotty than we could ever imagine. It proceeds on the basis that, like Harlan Crow and Clarence Thomas themselves, a veneer of friendship can be pasted over a solitary truth: everyone is for sale and anyone can be bought.