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Jul. 16, 2004. 01:00 AM
Films tap into my prejudice of the rich


By the time I realized I was feeling something like empathy for the newly middle-aged, struggling-to-be-sensitive multi-millionaire rock stars of Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, I also realized the movie had cannily exploited one of my most deep-seated and fondly nurtured prejudices: I hate the rich.

But here were guys who were not only fantastically and unspeakably rich, but also greying-around-the-jowls, self-doubting husbands and dads entertaining deeply head-messing questions about the paradox of belonging to the world's most successful head-banging outfit at an age when their dads were probably counting pennies to buy a new lawnmower.

If there's anything my prejudice, like all prejudice, hates, it's reason.

In this case, that meant being reminded that the members of Metallica are people, too. Beneath it all, they're guys who occasionally lie awake at night and wonder which foot to put on the floor first. Just like me. Poor, old me.

Hating the rich is possibly the last sanctioned form of irrational prejudice our otherwise liberal society will tolerate. Can't hate people anymore just because they're different, but you can hate 'em because they're rich.

The bottom line of Fahrenheit 9/11 is that George W. Bush is evil because he's rich. (Michael Moore, who made the movie, must also be rich, but this is not mentioned.)

If Bush were not rich, he would not now be straining to push the world over the brink of apocalypse.

In I, Robot, Will Smith's insufferably swaggering and attitude-inflated future cop walks into the offices of the robot-making corporation's CEO and sneers at him because he's rich.

And we sneer too — even though we're well aware that the CEO, since he's being played by the talented but hardly bankable Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood, is not one squillionth as rich as Smith.

But the scene works because it taps our populist hatred of the well-heeled and provides us with an instant villain. He bad 'cause he rich.

(In the movie, Smith drives a rich man's car, but since it looks so cool, it's somehow forgiven as a fashion accessory.)

In The Terminal, we are asked to love the character played by Tom Hanks, a bumbling Eastern European who becomes stranded and stateless at JFK airport, because he is poor and resourceful. He makes soup of ketchup, a cozy bachelor pad of an unused gate area, and generally gets along quite happily without so much as a cent in his pocket.

Indeed, he even gets the girl — poor, old Catherine Zeta-Jones, no less — because he's so poor, resourceful and lovable.

Never mind that the guy is being played by the most highly paid actor in Hollywood and directed by the most stupendously wealthy director in the history of motion pictures. It's good to be poor.

In Spider-Man 2, our hero's integrity is signaled by his insistence on doing the heroic stuff on principle. Spidey doesn't do it for cash; he makes money by sucking it up as a freelance photographer and putting up with the bull-headed newspaper publisher J.Jonah Jameson. Heck, he even sews his own costume.

Moreover, Spider-Man's high-ground frugality is boldly offset by the corrupting wealth that makes Alfred Molina's megalomaniacal Doctor Octopus possible.

This is a great message, even if it is conveyed by a movie that's currently raking in alpine mountains of cash and making everybody involved rich. Nobody who worked on it worked on principle and certainly not for free, and I doubt any of them — least of all Tobey Maguire — spends much time darning socks.

My own issues with wealth are based in both personal experience and cultural conditioning. I come from solid working- and lower-middle-class stock and I grew up surrounded by people who had more than I did.

I'm not claiming this gives me any moral advantage, it's just that I learned that rich people inhabit a world that is strikingly different from the world other people inhabit. It has to be.

Remove the worry of money, and people instantly enter another dimension.

Working in the media, one often comes across people who have hobby jobs in the field: They come from established media families, or once upon a time had well-connected parents who helped them live out their hobbies. I have yet to meet any people of a less-moneyed background who work in media just for fun. However, if they become sufficiently successful, their children might.

It concerns me, therefore, that we spend so much time listening to and looking at rich people — rich politicians, rich celebrities, rich businesspeople and rich athletes.

Just how much of our mediated attention is taken up by the activities, achievements and decisions of rich people, and how can that not skew our perception of the way the world works — or limit our imagination of alternatives?

The question is elementary: How can we expect fair government from people who live in the bubble of wealth? It's one thing that so much of the world's money is controlled and owned by such a small portion of its population, but it's something equally troubling that so much of the world's population spends its time watching that same minority in the guise of news and entertainment.

Any way you shake it, it's the rich who live in the spotlight. The rest watch in the dark.

Meanwhile, the very same mainstream media that make the rich richer and normalizes the notion of rich people as the most entertaining and newsworthy creatures alive also promotes the myth of the moral superiority of not having any money. Heroes are people who do it not for the money but the principle and villains are almost always people who have way more money than the heroes do. Money corrupts, we are told, while poverty, or at least modest means, builds integrity.

Old movies are full of fat, greedy bankers, ruthless cattle ranchers, conniving corporate sharks and oily aristocrats. They are equally full of simple country folk, unpretentious street saviours, little guys who go the distance and small-town rubes who go to Washington. But it was always the rich stars who played the poor heroes, and always the contracted character actors who played the rich villains.

Even today, Will Smith sneers at Bruce Greenwood because he's rich. But then, at the end of the day, it's the "hero" who returns in his studio-supplied limo to his gated mansion while the rich villain drives himself home to the suburbs.

And that's another reason to be wary of the rich: They're the ones who are always telling us that it's bad to be rich and better to be poor. I have a feeling they've got something to hide. Like it's not bad being rich after all. Even Metallica learned that.

Additional articles by Geoff Pevere

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