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'Prosperity Porn' Gives Britain's Super Wealthy Too Much of an Easy Ride

Shows like Benefits Street and Skint provoked outrage from viewers. Why haven't all the recent shows about the UK's financial elite sparked the same kind of reactions?

by Frankie Miren
09 January 2015, 2:20pm

A screen shot from Rich, Russian and Living in London

Chances are you're reading this at work. Perhaps you're sitting in your own private office with a sweeping view of the city, stretching back in your Eames, reaching for the 30-year-old Laphroaig and cackling over the 10k you've made since lunchtime.

If, on the other hand, your job is a bit shit – or if you don't have one at all – you should know that the reason for this lies squarely on your piss-lazy shoulders; you're just not trying hard enough.

Or so our Conservative overlords would have us believe. Most recently, Tory councillor Mark Winn enlightened us with his view that food banks are only used by "those with drug, alcohol and mental health problems".

He echoes Baroness Anne Jenkin, who reckons poor people just don't know how to cook. Bo-Jo would presumably agree, having claimed that the state should favour the 2 percent of the population with an IQ over 130, comparing those with a low IQ to the manky powdery stuff at the bottom of a cornflakes packet.

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The financial elite, and those whose policies allow them to keep burning banknotes, continue to thrive. Worse, their existence seems to be accepted as an ineradicable fact of British life.

This tired "the rich will be rich" mentality has been bolstered by the recent spate of prosperity porn about the super wealthy. Within the last few weeks, the BBC has broadcast Posh People: Inside Tatler; Rich, Russian and Living in London; and Billionaire's Paradise: Inside Necker Island – all shows that gave those at the top of Boris's financial cornflake packet a remarkably easy ride.

Last night, the first part of Jacques Peretti's documentary, The Super-Rich and Us, was a welcome change from the sycophantism. Focusing on the fact that Britain is the world's most sought-after tax haven, Peretti – along with several prominent economists – neatly skewered the Thatcherite idea that wealth "trickles-down".

In fact, wealth appears to be trickling up: Britain now has more billionaires per capita than any other country in the world, and we're the only leading economy in which inequality has increased in the last century. The question, then, "Are the super-rich good for Britain?" was answered with a resounding no.

So why, when we focus on the super-rich as individuals, do we give them so much leeway? That recent prosperity porn fiesta seemed like one long PR exercise in pushing the belief that people who own ten cars should be admired, purely for the fact they have a bigger garage than you.

A screen shot from Billionaire's Paradise: Inside Necker Island

Necker Island was aired on BBC2 this Tuesday and offered a lurid glimpse into the lives of those who pay £37,000 a night to frolic in the turquoise waters of Richard Branson's private Caribbean island.

Presented in the style of a Virgin holiday promotion, the programme didn't stop to question the fact that, on Necker Island, it's as though colonialism never faltered. Visiting guests – the New York property developer, the actresses, the princess – were Western and white, none doubting their entitlement to this slice of paradise. Even staff seemed to be "ranked" according to race: Branson's personal assistants (blonde, female, pretty), chefs, water-sports instructors and managers were white European; the cleaners and gardeners black Caribbean.

Branson came across as affable and charming, and of course he didn't create the global system that Necker Island so perfectly mirrors, though he certainly benefits from it. Britain's colonial history in the Caribbean is as shameful as it comes; a nation's wealth built on the back of the slave trade and sugar plantations. Today, cash has mostly replaced the guns, but on Necker Island, feudalism lives on. Perhaps Branson's cleaner will find a way to buy an island off the British coast and employ locals to make her beds, but it seems unlikely.

A screen shot from Posh People: Inside Tatler

This old money – which was, in all probability, created back in the days of the Empire – still festers on in Britain. We got the chance to gawp at the grizzled lords and ladies who own it via BBC2's Inside Tatler, which follows the staff of the country's most cloyingly Conservative publication as they "not only observe the upper classes but help preserve the rules they live by".

The Tatler team treat aristos with benign amusement and the show invites us to do the same. When a Scottish lord remembers how his ancestor threw an "annoying" waiter through a plate glass window, brushing off complaints by saying, "Put him on my bill," it's just a funny anecdote. Imagine if White Dee had joked about her granny getting away with glassing someone in the local.

New money was presented on a gold platter in Rich, Russian and Living in London. The show rounded up a selection of likeable multi-millionaires – not an oligarch among them – and, as much as is possible in 60 minutes, tried to challenge stereotypes and look at the historical context which led to Russians driving (literally) diamond-encrusted cars through Knightsbridge.

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The format is very different when it comes to depicting the poor; the problems with poverty porn such as Benefits Street and Skint have already been well documented. Feeding straight into assumptions about the work-shy, irresponsible poor, the surge of hatred on Twitter during the first few episodes of Benefits Street was in no way matched following anything shown in the rich-people circuses of Necker Island or Inside Tatler.

Residents of James Turner St received death threats after appearing on Benefits Street. Calling for the same treatment for the Bullingdon crew who polo-played their way though Inside Tatler is clearly just as much of a step too far, but surely the super-rich should be held just a bit more accountable?

Bank bonuses are still slapped on the table. Sanctions continue to be placed on the benefits of those who need them most. Last year, MPs claimed more on expenses than at the height of the 2009 expenses scandal. Income inequality in the UK is more pronounced than at any previous time in the last 30 years.

The super-rich need you to believe that their presence isn't fucking you up. But it is. If trickle-down worked, we'd all be getting richer.

We've had poverty porn. Prosperity porn just isn't matching up. Let's have some shows that problematise wealth in the same way as poverty. More stereotypes. Let's seek out cocaine-guzzling bankers, single mum-hating property developers and ruthless foreign investors.

Rich people aren't all like that? To hell with it – think of the ratings.

@frankiemullin

More stories about the super rich:

What BBC2's 'The Super-Rich and Us' Told Us About Britain's Great Wealth Divide

China's Super Rich Party Elite Don't Give a Single Fuck

A Big Night Out with... Moscow's Super-Rich!

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