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Opinion: What the Marxist gospel of Woody Harrelson can teach us

Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are solely the author’s own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

How to explain the spate of anti-billionaire sentiment that’s percolated in movies and TV over the past few years? A remarkable number of titles are carving up what’s been called the Second Gilded Age, in which a tiny number of people have amassed a staggering amount of personal wealth. Inflation, the pandemic, wage stagnation and soaring corporate profits seem to have created the perfect environment for class satire to thrive.

Sara Stewart

Two films this fall, “The Menu” and “Triangle of Sadness,” skewer the billionaire class with particular gusto. They’re the latest entries in a hot “eat the rich” trend in entertainment – though more accurately for these titles, it’s “the rich eat.” Hollywood and its foreign counterparts are showing a marked interest in taking shots at the appetites of the .001 percent – but to what end?

In Ruben Östlund’s brutally funny “Triangle of Sadness,” a male model and his influencer girlfriend take a luxury cruise that goes way off the rails and eventually end up shipwrecked. It’s at its best, if most grotesque, in the middle section, where cartoonishly ultra-wealthy guests end up spewing gelatinous seafood haute cuisine all over, in what feels like a hat tip to Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote. (Seriously, if you’ve got a weak stomach, proceed with caution.) Woody Harrelson pops in as the yacht’s Marxist captain, who drunkenly swaps bon mots about socialism with a Ronald Reagan-quoting Russian manure magnate as passengers reel and retch around them.

'Triangle of Sadness'

The Menu,” a little less gross, sees Ralph Fiennes playing an imposing, world-renowned chef whose remote island restaurant ends up becoming a trap for his roomful of elite guests. Each course in his tasting menu is a little more out there – his bread course, for example, doesn’t contain any bread, because it’s the food of “regular people” – until the dishes devolve into straight-up violent retribution for the diners’ financial sins.

The year’s most outre entry in this genre, the horror movie “Fresh,” stars Sebastian Stan as a seemingly nice-guy surgeon with a side hustle selling human flesh to a salivating elite clientele. Meanwhile, other recent offerings such as “Bodies Bodies Bodies” and “Glass Onion” savaged the wealthy, too, with Edward Norton playing an Elon Musk-esque tech entrepreneur in the latter. This whodunit goes even further than its predecessor, 2019’s “Knives Out,” which revolved around an entitled family scrapping for an inheritance. And on TV, the second season of Mike White’s masterful “The White Lotus” is putting its moneyed tourists through the wringer in Sicily. (“The White Lotus” airs on HBO, which shares a parent company with CNN.)

Ralph Fiennes in "The Menu."

According to Bong Joon-ho, director of the Best Picture Oscar winner “Parasite,” “[T]hese films sort of exploded out in the past couple of years. It’s not as if we all gathered together for a big meeting on how we should talk about class, it just happened very naturally.” But resentment of wealth-hoarding has been in the ether for a while; its rise in prominence likely coincides with the time frame in which many of these movies were in development.

The Washington Post’s Roxane Roberts summed up the national mood perfectly in 2019, chronicling “a growing resentment that the richest people and corporations have somehow managed to get richer while most working stiffs are just one or two missed paychecks away from a food bank… a gut feeling that the game is rigged, and the middle class and the poor are losing.” Throw in a pandemic in which billionaires got richer while millions died, and you’ve got a potent storm of cultural fury. The film biz spotted a trend and ran with it.

So if you enjoy black comedy, this is all very satisfying – to a point. These films, many with their fat budgets, are part of an industry that generates significant wealth for those at the top, including stars like Anya Taylor-Joy, Fiennes and Harrelson. They are likely to be feted at awards ceremonies that will feature eye-popping amounts of personal wealth on display, and expensive food and drink. In short, the behind-the-scenes may look a lot like exactly what they’re sending up onscreen. As writer Isabelle Truman aptly put it, “Anti-capitalism has arguably become packaged up and sold back to us.”

There’s an undeniable disconnect between what these movies seem to be suggesting – that the ultra-rich are ripe for the takedown – and the reality that continues, outside movie theaters, to be one in which the world’s wealth is concentrated in a few sets of hands. Maybe the most relevant scene here is in “Triangle of Sadness,” where a Russian oligarch’s wife, champagne in hand, haughtily informs a steward that “we’re all equal!” and commands the entire yacht’s crew to go for a swim in the middle of their workday.

The film’s third act, the shipwreck, flips the power structure on its head but seems to suggest that no matter who’s got power, they’ll misuse it. As critic Allison Wilmore said in her review, the message seems to be “Capitalism, right? What a drag, but then what else can you do?”

While we’re snickering at the humiliation of the greedy onscreen, wealth inequality in the real world continues to widen, with a team of Berkeley economists pronouncing that, “wealth concentration at the end of 2021 was at its highest level in the post-World War II era.” And as the Harvard Kennedy School’s executive director Fatema Z. Sumar wrote earlier this month, “in every major region of the world outside of Europe, extreme wealth is becoming concentrated in just a handful of people.”

So what’s one to do in the wake of films like these? Singlehandedly dismantling capitalism seems too heavy a lift. But, as Mark Twain said, “the human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.” We can at least capitalize, so to speak, on these films’ painting their ultra-rich subjects as inherently ridiculous. We can begin to puncture the idea that obscene wealth is the ultimate American aspiration; as Roberts puts it, “billionaires, for the most part, have evaded criticism by branding themselves as great innovators, personifying the American ideals of rags-to-riches opportunity and hard work.” In reality? Not so much.

One blueprint might be the recent savaging of Musk, newly-enthroned as Twitter’s CEO, on his own platform by its incensed users. Yes, Twitter may end up going entirely under, but if it does, its last gasp will have featured scores of people having fun at Musk’s expense – too many for him to suspend, like an infernal game of anti-capitalist whack-a-mole. And check out Bo Burnham’s series of odes to Jeff Bezos in his “Inside” special last year. (If you doubt this is mockery, just wait for the scream at the end of Burnham’s first performance.)

Another suggestion that’s especially relevant now: Follow up your watch of “The Menu” with the Christmas-themed documentary “What Would Jesus Buy?” At 15 years old, this mischievous look at anti-consumerism, and its enablers, may be more relevant than ever. As its subject, performance artist and culture jammer William “Reverend Billy” Talen says: “You can walk away from the product! Stop shopping! Hallelujah!”