The rich are not the problem (we are)
Triangle of Sadness and the moralizing of wealth and poverty.
Triangle of Sadness debuted at the Cannes Film Festival this year and won the Palme d’Or for its nuanced depiction of money, wealth, and power. I could not recommend a more poignant film for readers of this newsletter. Go watch it and then come back, this post is full of spoilers.
Triangle of Sadness concerns wealthy passengers aboard a luxury yacht and the staff that serves them.
We’re set up to hate the rich at first. When they introduce themselves at dinner, we meet the Russian “I sell shit” guy who earned his fortune in fertilizer, and the couple who made their millions selling hand grenades and landmines. “Those UN regulations messed everything up,” they complain. “Those regulations trimmed 25% off our profits. Those were hard times. But we pulled together.”
But it’s not single-note. Even among the elite passengers, some are old rich, and some are new rich, like the “I just sold my company” guy who feels the need to tell everyone how rich he is to get their approval. Others aren’t rich at all—like the model couple who are there for free as influencers. She poses with her fork full of spaghetti for a photo but doesn’t eat it because, as she explains, she’s gluten intolerant.
When one wealthy patron is being served champagne in the hot tub, she feels guilty about it. She invites her server to join her in the hot tub and even offers to serve her champagne. The crew member tries to resist at first, but ultimately, to satisfy the patron, she climbs into the hot tub with her clothes on. The patron thinks this is so much fun that she invites the entire cast and crew of the ship to let loose, take a break, and ride the waterslide.
We cringe as we watch every member of the ship dragged from their work breaks and naps to ride the waterslide. The chef complains that the octopus he is preparing for dinner will go bad, but never mind, the rich want everyone to go down the waterslide so out they go! The galley is emptied of employees as they all hurry to get down the slide before returning to their jobs.
If we’re tempted to hate the rich, the staff don’t make it out unscathed. Before the wealthy patrons come aboard, the crew director gives them a hype speech. No matter what they want, never tell them no, she says, because that’s what will get you a huge tip in the end. The crew starts chanting: “MONEY, MONEY, MONEY! MONEY!!!” They work themselves into a frenzy contemplating what they could do with their earnings.
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Here, we realize we’re being set up for an entirely different portrait of wealth. One where even the crew is motivated by money and thus can’t be found morally superior. It is because they want to receive those big tips that the staff complies and lines up for the waterslide. Here, director Ruben Östlund draws a foreshadowing line in the sand: this isn’t a movie about the rich and the poor. It’s about money and what it does to people.
“The left-wing describes society almost in the same way as Hollywood does: The rich capitalist is evil, the poor people in the bottom are genuine and nice,” Östlund told Kinfolk. “It’s almost like the left-wingers have forgotten about Marx, you know? Our behavior comes from which position we have in the financial and social structure.”
It’s easy to hate the rich. We compare our cars to their megayachts, our coach tickets to their private jets, our intimate weddings to their $20 million extravagance. But if we are able to notice the glaring excesses of the rich, we fail to notice the same behavior in ourselves. Their excesses may be more obvious at scale because we project our own incomes onto the rich and say, “They should be happy with the amount we are making and should give everything else away.” But we don’t do that ourselves. For the most part, as we earn more money, we don’t give more money away, we spend more money. We buy nicer cars, nicer houses, better plane tickets, have bigger weddings…
Why should we expect the rich to behave any differently?
They are just us, but wealthier.
In the film, that’s kind of the point. Woody Harrelson plays the Marxist captain of the ship. He has spent the bulk of the movie drunk and avoiding the rich people he despises until he makes an appearance for the very first time at the “Captain's Dinner.” The octopus has indeed gone bad, and nearly every passenger takes sick to the head, flooding the septic system with vomit and diarrhea. Only the captain and the Russian capitalist make it out unscathed—they don’t have such refined tastes.
“Do you know how to tell a communist?” the Russian quips to the captain, quoting Ronald Reagan. “He reads Marx and Lenin. Do you know how to tell an anti-communist? He understands Marx and Lenin.”
The Captain rises to the bait and the two begin exchanging ideologisms, quoting capitalists and communists in a battle of the wits. They are so embroiled in their ideological battle that they hardly realize the entire boat has taken sick and that no one seems to be steering. The ship heaves and lurches as the captain condemns his opponent. “While you are swimming in abundance the rest of the world is drowning in misery and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.”
But then he turns his ire on himself. “I’m a shit socialist because I have too much abundance in my life.”
At what level of abundance do we become the asshole? Is it when we make $50,000? $100,000? $300,000? $500,000? $1 million? And is it how much we have that determines whether we are? Do we need to be poor to claim the moral high ground? Is every step up from there only cementing our immorality? Or is money only illuminating the same selfishness we have at any price point?
Before we can contemplate things any further, the tides turn. In a bout of irony, pirates attack with the same hand grenades the elderly couple sells.
The ship wrecks.
The few to have survived are an odd cast of characters, some former passengers, some former crew. There is a battle of class at first, but quickly none of that matters when there is no food or shelter. One crew member, a former toilet cleaner aboard the ship, is the only one who knows how to make a fire and then the only one who knows how to fish.
When she catches an octopus and cooks it over the fire everyone clamors for a piece, but she withholds it for herself. They didn’t help her, she said, why should she help them? But you are a toilet cleaner, the crew director complains. No, she says. Here, I am the captain.
Power is back, but this time it has nothing to do with money.
The least is suddenly the most, and she is no less self-serving than the wealthy passengers had been. They promise her Rolexes and wealth if they ever leave the island in exchange for food. She claims the only enclosed lifeboat as her bed while the rest are left to sleep outside—with whatever that terrifying sound is. She invites the male model to join her if he’d like shelter and snacks for his girlfriend.
At one point we see her sitting around the fire wearing several Rolex watches around her wrist and the model draped across her lap. If, in a former life, she was an immigrant cleaning toilets on a luxury yacht, here she is the queen.
Östlund seems to say that any one of us, were we placed into a position of power and wealth, would not be exempt from such selfish behavior.
“Often, he says discussions of inequality place too much emphasis on the individual,” the Kinfolk article explains. “His intention with Triangle of Sadness was to explore class and privilege through the economic and social structures underpinning them.”
It is not the wealthy that’s the problem, it’s wealth.
At one point, a beachcomber wanders through the stranded millionaires, he’s so consumed with selling trinkets that he doesn’t realize the crew are shipwrecked. Outraged that the “rich people” won’t purchase any of his wares, he leaves them helpless on the beach. He too is after money, and this is why Kinfolk pins Östlund as the Marxist, but I actually think Östlund one-ups Marx.
In prison, inmates are stripped of their money and status and allotted equal amounts of food and time outdoors. But they still find another way to achieve status: By weightlifting and becoming stronger physically; by procuring cell phones and internet access, ramen packets and candy and selling them at a profit. Bernie Madoff was the portrait of wealth and status on Wall Street, but when he was stripped of both and sent to prison, he found another way to assert his prominence: by shoring up the hot cocoa packet market. Even in communism, he recreates capitalism and creates a monopoly.
There is no way out. Capitalism, wealth, status—it’s inevitable. Even when we remove wealth and status, we recreate it. And we can see that play out on the island. Stripped of all economic and social structures, there is a new pecking order, but there is a pecking order nonetheless. The toilet cleaner who can fish, the model who has a nice body, the Russian capitalist who can “turn wealth into more wealth”—they are just the many portraits of humanity who, even without status and privilege, will still take advantage of what they do have for their own benefit.
It’s not just wealth that is the problem, he’s saying, it’s us.
At the end of the movie, the female model and the toilet cleaner hike around the island to see if they can find help and they come across a luxury resort. They are saved! But before they can go in, we see the roles reverse once again. The model sits on the beach, thinking out loud: “Maybe I can help you after this,” she says. “Maybe you can be my assistant or something.”
Faced with the prospect of returning to the bottom of the hierarchy, we watch as the toilet cleaner comes up behind her, raising a large rock over the model’s head. We are left hanging on that note, never knowing if she goes through with it.
The director said his intention was to leave us wondering if any of us would do the same were we in the same position. We wouldn’t, my husband and I both argued. Because even if we are going to make the case that humans are inherently selfish, then we must admit that they are inherently altruistic too.
This is the entire basis of Rebecca Solnit’s work: that when disaster strikes, like earthquakes, fires, floods, and pandemics, we actually forget about the hierarchies and help each other. When our cars run out of battery in the parking lot there is always someone to help. Time and time again we have witnessed people letting strangers into their homes, housing victims of floods and wildfires, making masks for Covid workers, and playing music for Covid patients outside their hospital windows.
We may create status, but we tear it down too. If we are the problem, we must remember that we are also the solution. If we are to be condemned by our worst natures, then we must also be saved by our best. We are both the devil and the angel, and every struggle of democracy, of capitalism and socialism, of anarchy, contains some hope of protecting us from our worse natures and emphasizing our better ones.
The director agrees on this point, saying that overall he views humanity in a positive light. “We’re really good at collaborating and taking care of each other; we are really focused on trying to create an equal society,” he says. “My films just focus on when we’re failing.”
Thanks for reading,