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Privilege doesn’t start with the super-rich

There is a standard-issue Russian tycoon called Dimitry on board the yacht. There is a social klutz who is something in tech. There is, in a gallant stab at originality, an arms-trading couple in the November of their lives. 

When a storm sinks this ship of fools, beaching them on an island, the dominion of passengers over crew starts to flip. You see, the rich are all thumbs when it comes to survival skills. The toilet attendant can harpoon fish and make fires. (Poor people famously attend Navy Seals camp when young.) Watch her become queen of the island. Watch a male model give her some loving for extra rations. 

Triangle of Sadness, while an unworthy Palme d’Or winner, whacks the super-rich entertainingly enough. But here’s a thing. I too have a cleaner. And that puts me in a minority of the public. I dine out most nights, and with some fussiness, which further narrows the economic company that I keep. Last month, I incurred a £25 surcharge rather than keep an appointment with a Sky crew who were coming to install a dish. I couldn’t be bothered to race home from coffee with a friend and it was losable cash.

I am “just” upper middle class. But my life is one of late-Roman decadence next to that of the median earner. If you are a corporate lawyer (not even a partner) so is yours. If you send your children to a private school, or live in the catchment area of an acclaimed state one, so, most likely, is yours.

Much too much is made of the super-rich. And it is made by an upper middle class that is hardly more in touch with the national average. Take it from a social climber of some aptitude. Take it from a veteran of (I reckon) each household income decile since the age of five. The inflection point on the economic scale comes much earlier than you think. Something dramatic happens between, say, £30,000 a year and £130,000: a sharper change in the texture of life than occurs between the second number and a million. The first jump affects what you can do. The second tends to affect merely how. 

The upper middle class can rent in nice districts of world-class cities. The rich can buy there. The average can do neither. The upper middle class can fly to another continent. The rich can fly business. The average must plan and economise to do either. Having passed through the same universities, the upper middle class and the rich are often of a cultural feather. Diplomat can speak unto hedgie. How often does either befriend a nongraduate Band 5 NHS nurse? Or marry one?

The obsession with a small overclass distorts public life in all sorts of ways. One is a sort of innumerate confusion in politics. No, you won’t fund the welfare state of your dreams by squeezing plutocrats alone. (Nordic taxes ask a lot of the merely well-off.) And no, inheriting £800,000 of property isn’t normal.

Another is bad art, the kind that fancies itself subversive but spares most of its audience. There is always a painting or video installation nowadays about the cupidity of those able to buy it. That the curator, the agent and even the front-of-house team live lives of pure exotica next to the national average gets lost in the righteous gaze up at the one per cent of the one per cent.

This is where Triangle goes wrong. In having to reach so far up the income scale to find bad behaviour, the film achieves the opposite effect of its intended anti-elitism. It absolves everyone south of the Coutts current account income threshold.

If Ruben Östlund, the director, thinks the mistreatment of service staff is peculiar to the super-rich, I have a film proposal for him about the cafés of London. Opening scene: the press-ganging of a waitress as auxiliary childcare by yuppie parents might make for a tart opening scene. When the upper middle class are rude, it is precisely because they have to try to put distance between themselves and the service class. With the richest, the gap is too obvious to need underlining. At times, it seems, good manners do cost something. 

Email Janan at [email protected]

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