Crocodile Tears and Crocodile Bags: Why do we love sad rich people?

Image Credit: Freestocks

Amina Awartani unpacks the success and the wider significance of why we love watching sad rich people.

In a striking scene in Mark Mylod’s comedy horror film The Menu, the head chef (played by Ralph Fiennes) prepares a “Breadless Bread Plate” course, announcing to the guests that bread “Is, and will always be for the common man, which you, my dear guests, are not”. He makes a point of signifying to them and therefore to the audience that these people are detached from the real world and by extension, from humanity.

While their problems may seem out of touch with our own - they’ve never had to worry about paying off college loans or concern themselves with frivolous things like evictions- we still enjoy watching to see those with staggering wealth and status live out their lives and “overcome” the struggles linked to their position. Be it through reality television like Keeping Up with the Kardashians or even fictionalized social commentary such as Succession or The White Lotus; there is an appeal in observing the problems and pains of the wealthy. But why is that the case? More so, what lessons can we take away from watching the rich be miserable? Could it be that we enjoy seeing them get their comeuppance? Or is it that we view their stories like cautionary tales of how money corrupts the spirit ? 

In many fictional depictions of the absurdly wealthy on screen, one recurring theme is them being punished for this hubris. Think of Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, or even Mark Mylod’s The Menu. We regularly enjoy watching movies and shows in which the wealthy are punished. Whether it is shown by the horror genre or through satire, the rich’s fate is cathartic to those of us who do not have access to their power, wealth or status. In his book, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Mark Fischer writes “film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity”. We crave watching the downfall of the wealthy, preferably at the hands of a struggling average person like us, as it gives us a sense of justice that we are unable to access in the real world.  

Whether it is shown by the horror genre or through satire, the rich’s fate is cathartic to those of us who do not have access to their power, wealth or status.

The “money can’t buy happiness” moral of the story is a cliché for a reason; and it is in classics such as The Great Gatsby, and modern-day depictions of the rich seen in Gossip Girl, Succession and The White Lotus, that we see this cliché brought to life. As we continue to watch people of means enjoy their caviar and champagne, we also get front-row seats when cracks begin to appear in their lives. We watch Gatsby miserably pine for Daisy despite his wealth and power, we observe the Sullivan’s marriage fall apart, and we take in Blair Waldorf’s need for love and acceptance at the expense of her health. We look onto these characters contemplatively as they confirm the age-old truth that no matter how much we pursue wealth, it will not deliver us from the tortures of our soul.

In an article written for the Harvard Business Review titled “Time for Happiness: Why the pursuit of money isn’t bringing you joy — and what will” by Ashley Whillans, she writes how “Even individuals with a net worth of $10 million think they need to increase their wealth dramatically to be happier.” The article further reaffirms the idea that, not only does money not buy you happiness, but that you will also never get your fill of it in your pursuit for overall satisfaction. As such, these stories, in a way, comfort us in the knowledge that we, unlike those we are watching, are not corrupt with greed, nor are we stuck in a class whose sole purpose is to enrich itself materially.

Much of the narrative surrounding issues related to wealth and opulence is directly steeped in a culture of  hard work, discipline and the possession of a unique brand of intelligence that is non-existent in others. In reality, wealth is as much a game of luck as anything else, and tends to be influenced by factors linked to social class, attractiveness, race and nationality.  These stories we watch on the extremely wealthy act as a window to a world that elicits many different emotions such as envy, contempt, or disgust. 

However, they also allow for an understanding of how complex and layered their lives are. So if you choose to escape from the world around you by watching and criticizing the lives of the rich with disdain, or if you’d rather look onto them with pity and caution, you can rest easy in the knowledge that even they might not be as happy as they seem.