Trends: Film and television that satirize wealth rise in popularity

“Knives Out,” “Triangle of Sadness” and “The White Lotus” reveal a public discussion on wealth.

by Emma Coulter | 4/10/23 2:00am

by Elaine Pu / The Dartmouth

In the past decade, income inequality has become a hot topic of discussion amongst the general population, as the richest ten percent of the world’s population now owns 76% of the wealth, according to the 2022 World Inequality Report. Coinciding with the rise of social media and influencers on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, along with the sustained prevalence of reality shows, people have constant access to content that shoves opulent wealth in their faces. Now more than ever before, there is a general awareness and conversation surrounding the morality of extreme wealth. Filmmakers and television creators have capitalized on this. 

Films critiquing the morality of the rich or of the capitalist system are not novel premises. Perhaps the first major film painting capitalism in an absurdist light was Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 classic “Modern Times.” Between then and now, while films have explored the complexities of immense wealth, few have satirized them in the manner so prevalent today, such as the smash-hit films “Parasite” and “Glass Onion.”

Perhaps the most defining hit of 2019 was Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite.” The South Korean film, a social satire depicting an impoverished family’s exploitative scheme against their affluent overlords, was a massive success, grossing $263.1 million at the box office and winning the 2020 Academy Award for Best Picture. Within the same year, “Knives Out” grossed $311.9 million. A witty murder mystery, the film presents a caricature of egregious wealth, demonstrating the back-stabbing greed of the aristocratic Thrombeys. These two films act as the first indication that satirical depictions of wealth are on the rise. 

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, films satirizing wealth have continued to surge in popularity. Released in December 2022, “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” follows a similar model to its predecessor “Knives Out”  and is now Netflix’s fourth most-watched movie of all time. The film subtly mocks contemporary social media icons, as one of the central characters, tech billionaire Miles Bron, shares striking similarities to pop-culture symbol Elon Musk. 

Other films satirizing wealth that came out in 2022 include Rebun Ӧstlund’s “Triangle of Sadness” and Mark Mylod’s “The Menu.” “Triangle of Sadness” garnered international praise, claiming the top prize — Palme d'Or — at the Cannes Film Festival. “The Menu” was also successful, earning $79.6 million and an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Co-writer of “The Menu” Will Tracy noted the film’s connection to a larger trend in an interview with USA Today, saying, “It almost feels like it’s part of a wave, or that we are responding to [that trend]... There is something to be said about capitalism and this kind of cultural dissatisfaction: everyone is starved for something more.”

Television shows have also participated in satirizing wealth in the past, though such shows did not gain traction until recent years. “Arrested Development,” a show centered around a dysfunctional family’s internal war for control over their real estate business, premiered in 2003. While the show garnered 25 Emmy nominations and 6 wins during its original run. it did not manage to break into the top 100 most popular household shows, according to the Nielsen ratings. Though streaming has since lended “Arrested Development” more widespread recognition amongst general audiences, its lack of initial popularity in 2003 suggests there may have been less mainstream interest in the satirization of the lives of the wealthy.

However, in the past year alone, “Succession” and “The White Lotus” have seen massive growth, becoming two of HBO’s most successful shows. “Succession” details the absurdity of extreme wealth, following the fictional Roy family as they fight each other for control over the family’s media conglomerate. The series’ satirical elements are most evident in its depictions of high-society drinking and dining. In one scene, characters consume illicitly obtained songbirds under the cover of napkin cloths to supposedly heighten the shame of the activity. In another, the family estate staff dumps a tray of lobsters into the trash as though discarding food waste.

“Succession” first premiered in 2018, but since then its audience has grown immensely. The premiere of season four had the show’s record number of viewers — 2.3 million — smashing the previous record held by the season three finale’s 1.7 million. Throughout its first three seasons, “Succession” has been nominated for 48 eight Emmys, winning 13 of them.

In an interview with The New Yorker, “The White Lotus” creator Mike White said that “Succession” satirizes the lives of billionaires while “The White Lotus” gives a more nuanced satirical portrayal of wealthy resort guests and employees from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. “With ‘White Lotus,’ I wanted it to be more, like, ‘this is your next-door-neighbor rich person who is part of the system.’” White said. 

Similarly to “Succession,” the viewership of “The White Lotus” has increased exponentially in 2022 from its season one run in 2021. The season one finale finished with 1.9 million viewers across multiple platforms, and throughout season two, episodes averaged 10.1 million multiplatform viewers. The season two finale amassed 4.1 million viewers –– almost a 50% increase in viewers from the season one finale. Critically, it has also been very successful: Season one was nominated for 20 twenty Emmys and won 10. The second season is expected to receive even more nominations in the fall. The continued growth in viewership for both shows reveals their timeliness and cultural relevance.

In 2022 television and film, pieces depicting the satirization of immense wealth were extremely popular. This is indicative of a trend borne out of increased general social consciousness concerning class and wealth distribution. As long as this theme continues to be relevant to the public, Hollywood will likely continue to produce biting, scathing satires about the world’s most wealthy.