Film Writer Maxim Nägele comments on the rise of ‘Eat the Rich’ genre, discussing what it takes to do these films successfully
This article contains spoilers for Triangle of Sadness and The Menu.
In recent years, there has been an increasing number of movies that critically reflect on capitalism, neo-colonialism and other power structures enforced by the ‘rich white man’. On social media, this type of anti-capitalism is often classified as ‘Eat the Rich’ media, a metaphorical phrase that goes back to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the French Revolution and is nowadays a popular chant for left protests. It symbolises the outcry of contemporary society towards the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor and the catastrophic consequences of this inequality: “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” (Adolphe Thiers) While I support the wave of success that these anti-capitalist movies are having, like Oscar-winner Parasite (2019) by Bong Joon-ho or the HBO-series White Lotus (2022), it is important to examine how genuine and radical these movies actually are.
A successful example for me is the satire Triangle of Sadness (2022) by Danish film maker Ruben Östlund about the culture and careless lifestyle of the super-rich. The movie is structured into three parts, with its first one introducing the protagonists Carl and Yaya and their shallow relationship as aspiring models. In the second part, the couple is invited on a luxury yacht with other extremely rich international guests. Östlund perfectly exposes the gluttony and privilege of the super-rich on deck that contrasts to the poor status of the mostly immigrant crew working in the lower deck. Through a surprise capsizing of the yacht by pirates, the last part of the film shifts this hierarchy in a true ‘Eat the Rich’ fashion.
Stranded on a deserted island, the money and power positions of the guests suddenly have no meaning or value as the survival of the group solely depends on practical skills and knowledge about wildlife. Östlund masterfully describes this shift of hierarchies, when the immigrant staff member Abigail, who has these survival skills, turns into a possessive matriarch and the former superrich become subordinate workers. While Abigail and Yaya finally find a possible way out, the ending leaves it open whether the others figure that out or whether Abigail’s post-capitalist utopia can persist. This film provides a convincing critique of capitalism and its excesses on societal relations while also highlighting unexpected alternatives to the rich-poor and North-South dichotomy dictating our global capitalist system.
The horror-comedy The Menu (2022) by Mark Mylod similarly discusses the dichotomy between the super-rich and the service industry, yet in an arguably less successful way. It follows a group of affluent Americans visiting a luxury restaurant on an exclusive island. With each course of the menu, the guests reveal their privileged behaviour and classism more in the way they treat the staff and the high-quality dishes cooked for them. After a few courses, the restaurant’s chef Slowik turns out to have insidious plans with the guests, revealing the frauds and moral mischiefs that led to their immense wealth. Through this act of punishment, Slowik reverses the power relations and makes the privileged super-rich into obedient objects like the inferior kitchen staff.
In the final course, this social critique is expressed the loudest in a literal interpretation of the ‘Eat the Rich’ concept: the former guests are being dressed up as “human smores”, a version of the marshmallow-chocolate-biscuit bonfire snack, and chef Slowik sets the restaurant on fire. The super-rich end up as a literal dish that symbols low cuisine and more generally the lower class. The characterisations of the rich guests lack originality and reproduce common movie tropes, like the cheating husband, the arrogant finance guys or the mean food critic. This lack of individual depth is one of the main reasons why I find the movie’s overall critical stance unsuccessful. Its ending especially tries in a too literal and unconvincing way to make a critical comment about capitalist society and functions as a mere shock value for the audience.
While ‘Eat the Rich’ movies have the potential of highlighting present inequalities in our capitalist society, they are often superficially made or lack a deeper engagement with the political issues they address. Additionally, the fact that the current ‘Eat the Rich’ movies are mostly made by rich and privileged directors needs to be considered when judging the genuineness of their anti-capitalist stances. The increasing popularity and success of this genre nevertheless gives hope that society is finally realising the persistent inequalities of neoliberal capitalism and considering the possibilities of wide-scale systemic change.
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