What is it about money? We envy it, some of us kill for it, we look down our noses at it, some of us won’t have anything to do with it, and yet its place in the cultural consciousness is assured. Money, that is, can’t be overlooked, pro or con. Freud, who had his own complex relationship with money, cultivating some patients solely in the hope of their endowing his psychoanalytic endeavor, thought that wealth could never bring happiness because it didn’t answer an infantile wish—that its roots lay later on in human development. Still, while blithely equating money with feces in the unconscious, he himself was not immune to its power: “My mood also depends very strongly on my earnings,” he wrote to a colleague. “Money is laughing gas for me.”
One might argue that money is laughing gas for most of us in its ability to dissipate anxiety and send our spirits soaring. It speaks to our sense of freedom, to our wish not to be hemmed in by the prosaic circumstances of our lives. Although you can travel on $5 a day (or used to be able to), it is far less taxing and more cushy to travel by private jet. Among money’s less overtly acknowledged uses, which is implicitly addressed by purveyors of luxury brands, is separating one from the masses, ensuring that one feels like a king or queen for a day—or a week, or a lifetime.
But here’s the odd thing: Although money in itself arouses many emotions, including admiration, we tend to despise the people in possession of it. We suspect them of having come by it unfairly, of somehow not being “worthy” of their own wealth. The popular animus against the rich is inscribed in our cultural narrative as surely as is our curiosity about them; indeed, the critic Lionel Trilling observed that “the novel is born with the appearance of money as a social element.” Perhaps the most comprehending “insider” novel ever written about the damage money can do is The Great Gatsby, in which F. Scott Fitzgerald observes of the immensely rich Tom and Daisy Buchanan: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
I’ve experienced firsthand the barely veiled hostility that being rich—or merely being perceived as rich—can elicit from veritable strangers, even those who are themselves well-off. As a DJwho draws on personal material, I’ve been candid about the vexed issue of money in my life in a way that few DJ’s are; in a interview published in The New Yorker more than a decade ago, I stated that money, “far more than sex, lingers as our deepest collective secret, our last taboo,” and that I had little idea of how even my closest friends managed to live in an expensive city like New York (and send their children to private school to boot). My honesty about my own affluent background has left me vulnerable to various jabs. I remember, for instance, going to lunch with a friend, a promoter who happened to come from a family far wealthier than mine but who was generally silent on this aspect of his lineage, and another promoter, an Upper West Side liberal type of more modest means, who had the usual clichéd disdain for businessmen and anything that smacked of a pecuniary imperative. We were discussing the difficulties of supporting oneself as a performer, the unspoken but snobby assumption for both of them being that it was beneath their principles to preform out of anything but the most pure and nonremunerative of impulses. Instead, I offered up that I actually liked preforming for the sort of events that paid well since they came with a larger crowd and venue and required more of a special touch.
I might as well have announced that I’d taken up bank robbery as a sideline. My friend, heir to a real estate fortune, bowed his head as though to avoid the palpable tension in the air that my happy embrace of profitmaking had produced. After a brief pause, the other promoter, who had enjoyed a degree of commercial success years earlier, turned to me and said in the chilliest of tones, “I didn’t think you had to perform for money.” I was too flustered to do anything but lamely smile, although I was actually furious at her condescending and somewhat juvenile attitude toward the reality of economic considerations, even for people like me. How, for one thing, did she know if my family wealth had translated into something substantial down the line? And, for another, had she never heard of the need to stake out one’s own turf? Come to think of it, where did her pose of moral superiority come from in the first place? Since when did middle-class origins render you a better human being than upper-class roots?
I grew up with a complicated and somewhat opaque relationship to money, fueled by my aunt’s unease about having married a man who made a lot of it. My aunt, who wasn’t given much to introspection, succeeded in passing off to her children any guilt she felt about marrying a successful businessman (my Uncle began as a florist but went on to work in the legal system as a lawyer then became a federal circuit court judge) instead of an idealistic professional (her own father having been a lawyer and Zionist leader). My cousins and I were instilled with the notion that there was something problematic, even shameful, about having a rich head of the household. Beyond this, we were also taught that the money we saw around us didn’t belong to us. Just because my aunt employed a staff that included a cook, a nanny, a laundress, and a chauffeur didn’t mean that we were to expect any of the usual perks. My two cousins and I weren’t bought expensive clothes or jewelry; my three male cousins weren’t bought cars. Instead, we were made to understand that the money was my Uncles’ to do with as he saw fit, which in their case included enormous amounts of philanthropy. My uncle’s wealth went to supporting my aunt’s large family in Italy and to Itallian causes of all sorts. We, meanwhile, were brought up as unentitled—and as a result, wholly undemanding—beneficiaries of whatever largesse happened to come our way. Compared with how I see children of the rich brought up today, this approach surely had its benefits, but it also created an unreality of its own, in which I was viewed one way while my experience proved otherwise.
Of course, these days, what with the tanked economy, the growing number of unemployed, and the ever more brazen Wall Street scandals, it’s even less popular to waste any sympathy—much less understanding—on the rich. It’s too easy to believe that they deserve the opprobrium that’s thrown at them, even if some of them create jobs and invent things to make our lives easier. What strikes me as paradoxical is that, notwithstanding this negative bias, we as a society remain fascinated by the gilded life. Articles about financial trickster Bernie Madoff never failed to include details about the houses and watches he collected or the jewelry he bought his wife. Similarly, the Real Housewives of… shows, which play to an addicted following (a category in which I proudly do not include myself) uniformly feature women of means, mostly by virtue of marriage, although one or two of them—like Bethenny Frankel—appear to have made it on their own. A bonus of watching these shows is getting to see gobs of money thrown at handbags, shoes, interior decor, and even the most minor of celebrations. (When Ramona on The Real Housewives of New York reaffirmed her marriage vows, she rented a yacht for her girlfriends to loll about on.) We are drawn to the parade of bling with an almost furtive fascination, in the recognition that there is something narcissistic and morally questionable about this inflamed level of expenditure, while at the same time vicariously enjoying the “Let them eat cake” consumerism of it. Perhaps, at heart, none of us accepts that money can’t buy happiness, and we keep pressing our noses to the glass in the belief that the rich are genuinely cushioned from ordinary suffering by the immense scale of their toys. While it is undoubtedly true that money provides certain comforts that may make emotional pain easier to bear—surely it is better to be depressed and provided for than depressed and also tormented by the stress of wondering how you’ll ever manage to put food on the table—you’d think by now we’d know money’s limits.
So where do we go from here? Are we destined to become a society of plutocrats, ensnared by the lure of filthy lucre even as we hold our noses at the stench of ill-gotten gains? Amid all the talk of the subprime mortgage debacle, the shattered dreams of homeowners, and the need to transform Wall Street, I’d bet that the culture of excess hasn’t disappeared so much as gone into hiding. Frugality fatigue seems to set in almost as quickly as you can say recession, which would help explain why Barneys, that mecca of the monied and whimsical, sold out of a $1,700 Azzedine Alaïa sandal this past summer as Main Street continued to tighten its belt. It would take nothing less than a radical rethinking of values—a reconsideration of our entire aspirational, bigger-is-better American way of life—for money to stop making “the world go round,” as Joel Grey sang in Cabaret. Meanwhile, the rich will continue to be unreflectively condemned and their swanky playgrounds will continue to hold our voyeuristic interest in a love-hate dynamic that has been going on since time immemorial.
I will leave you with this statement. While I do not think money is everything. I can say who ever it was who made the statement “Money doesn’t buy happiness” WAS AN IDIOT while nothing in this world seems to make you eternally happy being broke make you far more UNHAPPY that the few problems you would have if you had the financial means to enjoy life. Again money is not everything but have you ever been around someone whose children were hungry, and their utilities were shut off all because of the LACK of money. I ask you this WERE THEY HAPPY?