Illustration by JR Fleming

How Succession Avoids the Wealth Porn Trap

Wisecrack
Wisecrack
Oct 11 · 7 min read

By Ross McIndoe

Perhaps because of the way it sits right on the edge of major mainstream popularity, Succession has become the kind of show that impels its fans to spread the word far and wide. As soon as it’s got you hooked, it becomes the go-to “You’ve got to watch this” show you bring up in every conversation.

That’s certainly been my life for the last month or so, but when I recommended it to one friend, he replied skeptically.

Succession, isn’t that just another ‘look how awesome money is’ show?”

It’s easy to see why. Succession centers around an ultra-wealthy, media conglomerate-owning family inspired heavily by the Murdochs with a dash of the Kennedys. The Roys are perennially decked out in sharp suits as they step from helicopter to limousine, limousine to penthouse. They live their lives as VIPs and spend their days wielding their power against others and each other.

At a glance, it very much looks like another entry into the Wealth Porn canon. Applied most recently to things like Crazy Rich Asians and Big Little Lies, the term Wealth Porn refers to works that focus on material wealth in a salivatory sort of way, luxuriating in the decadence and power that money affords.

Some shows, like Entourage, are straightforward celebrations of outlandish excess. They act as simple wish fulfilment, allowing the audience to vicariously enjoy the carefree world in which money really is of no concern. Most viewers live out their lives inside the boundaries of their budgets — shows like Entourage are designed to give them a glimpse of a world in which those guard rails fall away.

Entourage is happily pornographic — designed to fulfil a specific, pleasurable fantasy without much in the way of questions or complications.

The term Wealth Porn becomes more pointed when it’s aimed at movies or shows that claim to satirize decadence, but which we suspect are using that claim as an excuse to indulge in it. This kind of work is more similar to those which cite lofty artistic ambitions as an excuse for gratuitous nudity or violence. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with playing to your audience’s enjoyment in watching beautiful people get naked, but doing so while claiming to be subversive can come off as hypocritical.

Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and Showtime’s Billions have both divided critics as to where they fall on the celebration/satire spectrum. Depending on your take, the final scene of the former, in which Jordan Belfort addresses a room full of hapless marks while speaking directly to the camera, either underlines the satirical intent of the movie, or functions as a get-out-of-jail-free card for a gratuitous three-hour drug-orgy.

Depiction is not the same as endorsement, so it is absolutely possible to set a show or a film within the world of the ultra-rich without celebrating them. But the temptation is strong.

Wealth looks good on screen. Every costume perfectly tailored, every setting awash in expensive detail. The director can cut loose, throw the soundtrack into overdrive, and send the camera spinning across scenes of coked-up rockstar excess. Or they can glide elegantly across the manicured world before them, delighting in the boutique beauty of each frame.

Telling a story about characters with serious economic muscle also opens up a whole world of power fantasies once they start to throw their weight around — a great excuse for devastating one-liners and obscene set pieces.

“I bought the airline,” Ken Watanabe famously says in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. “It seemed neater.”

These kind of high-powered stunts are common in stories about the unfathomably rich. There is something immensely entertaining in watching someone leverage a ludicrous amount of power to achieve their goals, especially when that goal is comparatively petty — like Kendall shutting down an entire theme park for his kid’s birthday.

The key to understanding Succession is that each member of the Roy family absolutely believes that they are living out these kind of Wealth Porn stories — straightforward, glamorous power fantasies.

Yet, for all their well-tailored outfits and luxurious apartments, the Roys’ wealth is seldom made to appear glamorous. The show’s creator Jesse Armstrong, has spoken about his method of shooting the series in a kind of guerrilla style that leaves three cameramen free to roam with little in the way of direction from above. One benefit of this is that it allows him to immerse himself in the work being done by his actors rather than worrying about how they are shot, tightening the psychological dynamics of every conversation.

It also creates a kind of slightly bumbling, lo-fi style that prevents the Roys’ opulent lives from ever appearing all that desirable.

Armstrong has also said that the show employed wealth advisors to ensure that the way the characters behaved was authentic. One of their directions was that the Roys should never duck their heads when getting in or out of a helicopter — they’ve been doing this since they were children, so it has to look like second-nature. Even when Kendall is blasted on vodka and coke in a season two episode, he still stumbles out of the cockpit without flinching under the propeller.

When you have been wealthy all your life, wealth is not exciting. Designer clothes are just clothes, penthouses are just homes, helicopters are just ways of getting around.

One of the qualities which really characterizes all of the Roys is the absolute comfort they display anywhere in the world. They sprawl across chairs and finger objects carelessly, treating every environment like their family home. That’s what wealth looks like: a feeling of low-key, slightly bored, slightly boring ownership over the world.

Wealth Porn works because it shoots the world of the 1% from the perspective of the 99%. Its excitement over sports cars, diamonds, and country manors is like Harry Potter’s when he witnesses the feast appearing before him on his first night at Hogwarts — the joy of someone who has had nothing suddenly being confronted with abundance. To the Malfoys of the world, it’s just dinner.

When the Roys head to one of their summer homes at the start of season two, we see a grand banquet being laid out in anticipation of their arrival. If the show wanted to intoxicate us with the scale and exoticism of their feast, it could have had it appear as if by magic, fully formed upon the Roys arrival. Instead, Succession draws our focus to the man-hours, the drudgery that goes into the magic trick. When, in a fit of rage, Logan orders the entire feast destroyed, the show can double-down on this emphasis — underlining the monumental waste that is generated to create the sense of endless, effortless plenty the ultra-rich enjoy.

This is why shows and films about the mega-rich will often give us Nick Carraway figures, avatars who we can relate to when they are overwhelmed by the Gatsbyesque world of decadence that is suddenly thrown open to them.

Having undermined the sense of luxury through its cold, cumbersome aesthetic and careful framing, Succession then sets about puncturing the other main element of the Wealth Porn fantasy: power.

Over and above its genius casting or its intricate psychodrama, Succession has drawn praise for the stiletto sharpness of its dialogue. Each episode is a barrage of creative, cutting insults, as the Roys jockey for position. Their interactions are a series of “I’m CEO, bitch” moments.

Watching the Roys be so consistently, viciously funny is a major part of what makes Succession entertaining. However, for all their elegantly-constructed bickering, the Roys are never as impressive as they think they are.

Their plots are forever being undone by their own shortcomings. Kendall is an insecure mess who fails in two separate bids to seize control of the family firm because of his desperate need for reassurance. Roman hides his crippled sexuality and sense of inadequacy beneath a layer of supersized bravado. Siobhan continually overplays her hand through overconfidence. Connor has allowed wealth to detach him from reality, though not from ambition.

When they win, it is rarely because their carefully laid plans have been executed correctly or because they have outmaneuvered their opponents. It’s because they are rich.

“I’m gonna stuff your mouth with so much money, you’re gonna shit gold figurines,” Kendall tells the owner of a start-up he wants to buy in Succession’s first episode. “I’m going to lock you in a golden cage, f**k you with a silver dildo, and pay you so much you sing whatever song I want.”

His phrasing makes it sound like a real power move, an act of domination by a man of immense power. In truth, all he’s saying is, “I’m going to give you lots of money.” Because, beneath the carefully-arranged veneer of Silicon Valley Superman that Kendall has created, his only real superpower is wealth.

“Money always wins,” Logan tells his clan, after battering a rival firm into accepting a takeover bid.

The Roy children like to envisage themselves as cunning pugilists, throwing feints, slipping jabs, and delivering killer blows with murderous precision, but in reality they are sumo wrestlers, crushing their opponents with their sheer financial mass.

Succession’s effectiveness comes from how close it gets to its characters. The fly-on-the-wall, docudrama feel strips the wealthy world of its golden aura and reveals the shattered egos underneath. It moves right up into the private spaces of its characters and shows how uncertain, insecure, and often incompetent they are.

Wisecrack

The low brow of high brow.

Wisecrack

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Wisecrack

Wisecrack covers the intersection of culture, philosophy, and criticism.

Wisecrack

Wisecrack

The low brow of high brow.

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