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House of Lies: Lifestyles of the Rich and Awful

House of Lies Season 6

The conflicted management consultants on House of Lies distill Hollywood’s love/hate affair with the carnivorous road to the top...

“The very rich are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. As the author of The Great Gatsby, he obviously had a keen interest in what all those differences might be. Nearly a century after Fitzgerald’s insight, filmmakers and storytellers are still grappling with the possibility that the rich and powerful have something that the rest of us don’t have. And contrary to the old joke by Fitzgerald’s pal Ernest Hemingway, it’s more than just more money.

Going by most examples onscreen, a certain combination of drive, ingenuity and borderline-sociopathic amorality is what allows these titans to achieve huge material success, often at the expense of nobler character traits. Just think of all the vile clients whose images have benefited from massaging by Marty Kaan’s management-consultant team on House of Lies. Over the series’ first four seasons — the fifth begins this month — Don Cheadle’s smooth-talking antihero has met more than his share of shady CEOs, duplicitous Big Pharma types, ruthless tech moguls, and even depraved celebrities (like Matt Damon in a hilarious, self-spoofing appearance).

These big-money/small-conscience types are hardly scarce on our screens, especially since the 2008 economic meltdown caused huge woes for rich and poor alike (though mostly the poor). Along with House of Lies and Billions, other recent shows and movies about one-percenters and the cutthroat world of big business include The Big Short, Steve Jobs, Margin Call, The Wolf of Wall Street, and a TV miniseries (Madoff) starring Richard Dreyfuss as fraudster financier Bernie Madoff. (Robert De Niro also plays the Ponzi schemer in The Wizard of Lies, an HBO movie out later this year.)

To varying degrees, all of these new examples fit into a long tradition of Hollywood portrayals of capitalism (and capitalists) at its worst — it’s not like the banker is the good guy in Its a Wonderful Life. The same goes for Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy’s rich geezers in Trading Places. As for Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko — the epitome of ’80s sleaze in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street — the best thing you can say about him is that he’s not a murdering yuppie nut job like Christian Bale in American Psycho.

But despite all the nastiness at hand, audiences feel a complicated array of responses to the ways of these men (and they’re almost invariably men). We’re meant to disapprove of their tactics, but we can’t help but be fascinated, and maybe envious of their ability to become masters of the universe like Sherman McCoy, the investment banker in Tom Wolfe’s satire The Bonfire of the Vanities. Their wealth and power frees them from the restrictions that constrain more mundane lives.

Their daring and venality can be exciting, too, especially when you’re not the one getting swindled. Nowhere was that more the case than in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which presented the splashy milieu of its swindler characters as a rollicking, drug-fuelled party that viewers could enjoy by proxy even if it left them feeling queasy. The fact that Leonardo DiCaprio served as the circus master added to the glamour.

Since true-life rich-guy crooks like Madoff and The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort already have received the Hollywood treatment, it’s only a matter of time before viewers get a movie or TV series about Martin Shkreli, the brash entrepreneur vilified for allegedly making a fortune off an exponential price hike for life-saving drugs. (Given the actor’s resemblance to Shkreli, Jake Gyllenhaal would be perfect for the part.)

But things would be a whole lot simpler if the rich always served as easy villains. Instead, the real world is full of wealthy and powerful people that we’re encouraged to admire, which may be a testament to the effectiveness of image-rehabilitation campaigns by Kaan’s non-fictional counterparts. While business magnates like Jack Welch and Warren Buffett are revered for their wisdom, others — like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who last year announced his decision to donate billions in Facebook profits to charitable causes — are praised as great philanthropists. As valuable as their altruism can be, you don’t have to be as cynical as Marty Kaan to regard their changes of heart as public displays of atonement for the less admirable behaviour that got them to the top of the ladder.

Essentially, they are humanized, a task that Hollywood is often happy to perform. (Even Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs softens the edges of its subject despite Michael Fassbender’s complex performance and Aaron Sorkin’s often caustic script.)

Whether they appear on House of Lies or CNN, these big shots have a potent and sometimes contradictory allure. That’s why viewers should be forgiven for sometimes feeling that the very rich are not only bolder than us but better, too. Heck, some people are apparently so confused by it all, they believe that Donald Trump belongs in the Oval Office. But surely Americans would vote for Jordan Belfort if they wanted a truly epic inauguration party.

Jason Anderson writes about movies for Cinema Scope, FFWD, and the Toronto Star.