Why We Love to See How the Rich Live
Life + Money

Why We Love to See How the Rich Live


America’s obsession with wealth has been a spectator sport for years. During the depression, glamorous movies about how the other half lived lifted people’s spirits and reminded them that better days were ahead. Even Joan Crawford pulled herself out of the hole as the iconic “Mildred Pierce.” She went from wearing dowdy housecoats and maids’ uniforms to fur coats.

In the 1950s and early 60s, Edward R. Murrow, one of the top broadcast journalists of the 20th century, hosted a show called “Person-to-Person,” which gave wealth spectators a look at how Hollywood celebrities, heads of state, and even famous authors lived. One of Murrow’s most memorable interviews and “tours” was with John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline at the White House. And there was Elizabeth Taylor, the queen of bling, Frank Sinatra, the king of the rat pack, and even Marilyn Monroe.

SLIDESHOW: What Rich Kids Might Take to College

Murrow didn’t like the show very much, but stayed with it for six years—from 1953-59. He no doubt foresaw what was to come—the shift toward celebrity journalism at the expense of hard news. He was right, of course.

“Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” hosted by Robin Leach was an instant success in the mid-eighties. It spawned a number of knock-offs, and was preceded by TV dramas like Dallas and Dynasty—two primetime soap operas that gave viewers a vicarious taste of the good life.

Even the Great Recession didn’t completely kill the secret obsession with wealth, although for a long time it was unseemly to flaunt it if you had it. Occupy Wall Street may have ignited an anti-wealth movement, but it didn’t snuff out entirely the embers of desire. A show called “Revenge” took direct aim at what the Guardian called “the amoral super wealthy.”

Related: Morgan Stanley Adds More Banking Services for Wealth Clients

Here, a cast of millennials head by Emily VanCamp who plays Amanda Clarke takes on the diabolical—but well-heeled Grayson family who framed her father. The beachfront Hamptons-like home, the designer clothes and furnishings are all, well, OWS evidence of crimes against humanity. The final fourth season will soon be released on Netflix.

Throughout the recession, when people were losing their homes after the bubble burst, Bravo’s successful “Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles” real estate show not only continued, it spun off shows in New York, Miami and San Francisco. Some call it real estate porn, made for wealth spectators.

Today, millennials of gone a step further—no shame being rich. The “Rich Kids of Instagram” post their lifestyle pictures on social networks without even a smidgeon of guilt about having 500 pairs of shoes in a summer weekend house may be a tad over the top.

Their thousands of fans don’t seem to mind, either. They like to keep up with their milieu by reading daily posts about buying stuff and fretting about things like, “Rolls-Royce Drops Phantom Metropolitan Collection,” or “At $15,000, Burgundy crowned the World’s Most Expensive Wine.”

Click here to see What Rich Kids Might Take to College