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Richard Branson

Following the fascinating (not in a good way) series Posh People: Inside Tatler at the end of last year, BBC2 have continued with their celebration of all things luxurious and ostentatious with their ‘meet the super-rich season’. Within the last week, they have broadcast Rich, Russian and Living in London; Billionaire’s Paradise: Inside Necker Island; Super Cars vs Used Cars: The Trade Off and the rather more critical The Super Rich and Us. After last year’s televisual love affair with poverty porn (Benefits Street, Skint, other mindless tripe), billionaire porn has become the new fad.

There’s a notably different tone to billionaire porn. As opposed to the abject and pernicious representations of the working class in poverty porn, billionaire porn glorifies the fast-paced, flashy and grandiose lives of society’s elite. Benefits Street opens with a shot of a James Turner Street resident striding down the road, pointing at houses and identifying its inhabitants as “unemployed… unemployed…”, before cutting to a long shot of three young men in tracksuits and hoodies, stood in a front garden surrounded by rubbish bags and waste. Within 5 seconds of the programme, Channel 4 and Love Productions have aligned themselves with the myth of the feckless, workshy, underclass; invoking reactions of disgust and disparagement from the viewing public who are encouraged to ‘look down’ on the classed, raced and gendered residents of James Turner Street.

The opening section of Billionaire’s Paradise: Inside Necker Island is directly oppositional. A long aerial shot of illustrious Caribbean sea and beaches is accompanied by a female voiceover, stating “people have long dreamt of living in paradise. But for most it’s somewhere just out of reach”. This cuts to a shot of billionaire Richard Branson, insisting everyone is searching for their ‘garden of Eden’, before he is seen lounging on the balcony of a luxurious mansion overlooking his private island. As opposed to the residents of Benefits Street, who are immediately ‘othered’, Richard Branson is curiously positioned as ‘one of us’. He, too, dreamed of a mysterious paradise; and if we work hard we could achieve this too. No one suggests we could one day become the James Turner Street residents, even though this is probably more likely in the current economic climate, because this is not the kind of social mobility we desire. The programme makers are playing to a socially normative, capitalist-driven dream: a dream of unlimited wealth, luxury and consumption.

Both programmes highlight a neoliberal ideal of meritocratic, entrepreneurial, individualistic citizens. If you don’t work hard, you’ll end up like White Dee and co., framed as the cause of Broken Britain, the financial crash and punitive austerity regimes. If you do work hard, you could be the next Richard Branson, frolicking on a luxury private island whilst the use foodbanks almost triples in one year back in the UK. These programmes reiterate a common-sense attitude around ideas of ‘skiver vs striver’. They depoliticize the distribution of wealth, suggesting both poverty and prosperity are the result of lifestyle choices. They work to legitimate the extreme levels of inequality in contemporary Britain, separating the ‘good citizen’ from the ‘bad’.

Billionaire porn is glamourizing extreme wealth, celebrating the private islands, super cars, sprawling mansions and luxurious boutiques. It’s not critiquing how these people became rich, how they maintain this wealth and how it’s affecting everybody else in society. It’s not problematizing these lifestyles in the same critical way as the lifestyles of the poor are criticized and mocked. Of course, the cultural intermediaries and media tycoons who control these programmes are, for the most part, middle- and upper-class. They’re always going to protect their own interests by maintaining cultural support for those at the top of society. They want to ensure you’re not asking questions about their presence and their exceptional greed for money. But we need to start asking questions about such extreme inequality in a supposed meritocratic, democratic, developed country. And billionaire porn doesn’t seem to be the way to do this.

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