Image: Illustration: Manelisi Dabata

I remember when I first grasped the inalienable, granitic truth that nice things are nice. I was five or six years old, sitting in the passenger seat of my uncle’s willow-green Mercedes-Benz W124. The simple yet significant click of the glossy black window switches entranced me. There was a pleasing tactility in the precision with which those switches switched, a precision in the hum of the windows as they obeyed my commands that spoke of unseen depths of quality.

Very few things in my world were so redolent of expensiveness. Those switches have lingered in my memory because it is luxury’s privilege to be remembered long after itself. But it is also because the car of which they were a part captured something about the nature of expensive things, such as they were then. In the pre-whizz-bang era, wealth was signified by solidity and gravitas. It was meant to convey the idea that it would be durable and long lasting, like those black and white adverts that make you cry before the movies.

Of course, to most people, an old Mercedes sedan is about as desirable as rising damp. Like the cassette player and the fancy plates your mother kept for guests, it is a relic of an obsolete age. That is the strange thing about the trappings of wealth. What promises to endure often ages horribly. There are enough dusty furniture warehouses packed to the rafters with dismally unfashionable wooden furniture to testify to that. Part of the reason for this is because the way in which we understand wealth has changed.

In the old days, when people had specific outfits for eating dinner and everyone’s hair was flammable, there was a certain mystique to being wealthy that seems almost inconceivable now; a sensibility usually encapsulated in objects with a reassuring heft to them: Orrefors crystalware, a Linn turntable, or the winding crown of a Rolex Daytona makes you feel like you could be Gianni Agnelli himself.

That mystique was not inherent in the money itself, mind you — money has always been a grubby tool, unequally distributed and hoarded unbecomingly by those with more of it, generally best kept out of sight. Rather, it lay in the access to sophistication, ease, and variety that wealth got you. A few decades ago, it was a proudly spouted maxim that if you wanted to see what safety features the ordinary cars of the future would sport, you only had to look at the Mercedes S-Class of the day. A couple of years on from that, and we learned that you never really owned a Patek Philippe (even though someone took a large wodge of cash from you for the privilege of being its keeper).

So, what has changed? In the age of hypervisibility, mystique is an increasingly outmoded quality. In its place resides an inexpressively needy brand of wealth. The contemporary preoccupation with trying to make us interested in the extraordinariness of wealth is looking increasingly like an affirmation-seeking exercise. As Geoff Dyer puts it, capitalism devotes itself to fervently erasing the distinction between “want” and “lack” in the interests of its own survival. It’s why so much time and effort goes into monetising ideas such as “quiet luxury”, which is simply a recycled version of the po-faced modesty that prevailed in the 1990s, advising people to adopt minimalist silhouettes and de-badge flagship luxury cars so the common man wouldn’t know that yours was the Super Fandango Money Edition.

what is the spectacle of the curtain pulled across the plane, the queues bypassed, the hidden restaurants, if not a show for the benefit of the hoi polloi?

Don’t get me wrong. Wealth is deeply boring, and people who make it a part of their personality tend to be difficult to talk to. This is the first lesson of The Great Gatsby, and it’s as true now as it was in F Scott Fitzgerald’s day. Watch any Architectural Digest home tour and you’ll discover that being rich and famous amounts to little more than a predilection for filling vast kitchens with lemons and being so anxious about committing a stylistic faux pas that everyone settles on 50 Shades of Beige. This sort of thing exerts no appeal. You can’t imagine Cary Grant living in a beige house. Beige does not say “wealth”.

 The global picture of financial wealth becomes ever more vacuous in its obsession with performativity — what is the spectacle of the curtain pulled across the plane, the queues bypassed, the hidden restaurants, if not a show for the benefit of the hoi polloi? It is readily apparent that it needs outsiders to complete the look, and we would probably all do better not to afford it any seriousness. It only encourages the terminally silly to make us validate their blasting rockets into space or injecting themselves with anti-ageing concoctions made from their own wee. The game of wealth depends for its currency — in an uneasy way — on those who do not have it, so maybe if we all agree to stop playing it we can find something more fun to do. I’m risking a wave of invective from the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats types, but I wonder if someone has told them that there are other things we can play at besides being sea captains? Probably not? Never mind. I’m off to find an old Mercedes to fiddle with.

© Wanted 2024 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.