Why we can’t resist ostentation.
What, exactly, is behind our love of all things opulent and over-the-top?
Iam admiring a hamburger. Well, a photo of one. And it is literally covered in gold.
The creator of this spectacular sandwich is the rather charmless-sounding Honky Tonk diner. Located in London, it’s “an American-inspired restaurant”—albeit with a swisher accent and, one assumes, prices that would be more at home in Dubai, if not an alternative universe. But a quick review of its other (far more reasonable) menu items reveals the “Glamburger”— yes, that’s what it’s called—for what it truly is.
Served, no doubt, with a liberal sprinkling of chutzpah and a side order of P.T. Barnum-style savvy, the Glamburgerwas created as a promotional tool by the restaurant last year. It was laughable in its excess, a gourmand’s nightmare and a glutton’s wet dream. But it was also the most expensive hamburger in the world, which is why it was made and why it made headlines.
Like most hamburgers, it consisted primarily of a ground-meat patty slathered in condiments and cleverly encased between two halves of a single bun. Unlike most, this hamburger cost $2,250 (not including tip).
Here’s what you got: 227 grams of Kobe wagyu beef (seasoned with Himalayan salt), 57 grams of New Zealand venison, black-truffle brie (found in the centre of the patty,
it produces a “liquid pocket” when cooked), Canadian lobster poached in Iranian saffron, maple-syrup-coated bacon, a dollop of beluga caviar and a hickory-smoked duck egg. All of it was topped off with a bun that was covered in edible gold leaf. It was, in a word, opulent. Opulence—best defined as the ostentatious display of wealth—is all around us. Witness the irredeemably vulgar launch of yet another Trump Tower, skyline-altering testaments to questionable taste and ego run amok. Or tune in to the high-pitched 12-cylinder roar of a passing Ferrari F12berlinetta, which can be yours for the low, low price of only $430,000 plus your first-born male child. Feeling spendy? Why not book the Jewel Suite at the Lotte New York Palace. For $32,500 a night, you can stretch out in your 465-square-metre room, complete with private elevator, grand piano and maître d’étage service (whatever that entails).
Magazines like Robb Report keep us up to date with breaking news from the yacht front, while Cigar Aficionado does its level best to advise on the most sublime way to acquire throat cancer. What’s in your wallet? The American Express Centurion Card, commonly known as the “Black Card,” has a $5,000 initiation fee, a $2,500 annual fee and a reported $250,000 yearly spending requirement. (All in all, a small sum to pay to look suave when you hear the phrase “We don’t take AmEx” over and over again.) Of course, you’ll need a decent purse in which to lug around that Black Card and its weighty karma. How about a classic Hermès Birkin? You can score one made from Himalayan crocodile for only $560,000—one of the most expensive handbags ever produced. A particularly swank function calls for an equally posh dress. May we suggest a cute little hautecouture number from British designer Scott Henshall? Back in 2004, Henshall created a dress, worn by actress Samantha Mumba to the Spiderman II premiere, that was said to cost $11.7 million. Haute damn!
Today, it seems that opulence is more prevalent than it has ever been before. Why? Opulence sends a message. Without uttering a word, it tells others “I’ve arrived—now fetch my bags.” But none of this is new.
Lavish displays of wealth and consumption have been part of human history since the pharaohs trimmed their sarcophagi in gold. Despite Islamic doctrine forbidding the decoration of graves, the gleaming white marble mausoleum known as the Taj Mahal was hardly designed with modesty in mind. The baroque era, with its excessive ornamentation and addiction to gold leaf, gave us such gems as St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Malta, an homage to God that is so full of pomp that even He would describe it as overkill. In 1890s America, the aptly named “Gilded Age”—the term was coined by Mark Twain, who harboured a special disdain for excess—saw an explosion of new wealth, and names like Astor, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and Hearst became synonymous with huge manor-like estates. In the 1950s and ’60s, Liberace, the celebrated pianist/showman, captivated audiences with shockingly outré costumes and a campy flamboyance that makes Elton John look introverted by comparison. (Closeted throughout his life, he eventually died of AIDS-related complications; Liberace was petrified of being outed, which serves to remind us that the shiny veneer of opulence is sometimes meant to disguise the torment that flows underneath.)
More recently, the figurative offspring of these conspicuous characters include anyone from arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who during the 1980s would spend about $325,000 a day, to Pablo Escobar, the cocaine drug lord who, before he was killed, had amassed a fortune that placed him seventh on the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest people. Among his possessions was a solid gold and diamond-encrusted Rolex, a zoo featuring hippos, giraffes, zebras and elephants and an extensive art collection populated with original works by Dalí, Picasso and Botero. With rap now less a political statement and more a commercial grind, the gold-chain excesses of the 1980s seem quaint—at least when compared to hip-hop power couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé (combined net worth: $1.3 billion), who flaunt their wealth with their own private jet, extravagant rented yachts, homes in New York, the Hamptons and L.A. and, just for kicks, the music-streaming service Tidal.
There is a pattern here, of sorts. Interestingly, it’s often not the Astors, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers or Hearsts anymore who feel driven to parade their opulent tastes; today, their excesses rarely make the BuzzFeed rounds. Instead, it seems as if the worst offenders are those who have very recently come into money. Through their conspicuous overconsumption, are they perhaps attempting to purchase validation along with that $800,000 Bulgari Magsonic Sonnerie Tourbillon timepiece?
When it comes to over-the-top extravagance, it would be hard to best Florida-based time-share moguls David h
Opulence sends a message. Without uttering a word, it tells others “I’ve arrived—now fetch my bags.”
and Jackie Siegel, subjects of the documentary The Queen of Versailles (2012). The Siegels live an extraordinarily lavish life that includes building a replica of the famous Palace of Versailles—although with an indoor roller rink and bowling alley, it certainly isn’t an exact replica. Begun in 2004, construction of the 8,360-square-metre “monument to bad taste,” as one critic called it, was halted after the 2008 market crash devastated the Siegels’ bottom line. At one point, Versailles was in foreclosure; it was listed at $130 million, and there were no takers.
Collective delight at their downfall was short-lived. The Siegels’ fortunes have since revived and, after a four-year hiatus, they’ve resumed construction on Versailles—and once again exhibited the same kind of hubris that factored into their decision to create it in the first place. When asked why they wanted to start the project, David Siegel answered simply, “Because we can.” Although not quite “Let them eat cake,” the parallel is undeniable.
However off-putting this may be, there is something undeniably captivating about opulence and those who flaunt their wealth. It’s the same voyeuristic impulse that draws us to shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, World’s Most Expensive Homes and House Hunters International. We are pulled almost magnetically toward the outrageous, the extreme. Or to the exceptional— whether exceptionally good or not so good.
In a memorable New Yorker article, writer Adam Gopnik, in trying to justify the caricature of sex that Marilyn Monroe had become, hit upon a much larger truth. “To be very rich or very lovely or very good is inherently interesting, since veryness of any kind is not part of dailyness,” he wrote. “Unhot is this everyday-existence thing, and so we continue to celebrate that same handful who were truly great, or at least immensely curvy, and, as long as we do, the smallest drop of their sweat has value.”
Sweat and curves aside, the same could be said about those who push boundaries of opulence, regardless of outcome. We are intrigued by the designers of impossibly tall buildings like the Burj Khalifa and owners of yachts large enough to double as convention centres. From the enduring mystique of the Hope Diamond to the odd fascination with Fabergé eggs and England’s crown jewels, worldly manifestations of otherworldly wealth are more intriguing than repellent. Even the construction of the Floridian Versailles, such a laughably obscene ode to the Siegels’ bloated self-regard, is, at least, interesting... in a freak-show sort of way. Bigger is not always better, but it is always big, and very few things are.
So why opulence? Because it is shinier. Because it is bolder. Because its exuberance and extravagance scratch at the limits of human achievement. Because it is very.
Mainly, though, because we can.